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February 10, 2012

Five Cats hit double digits in rout of Iowa

EVANSTON--Drew Crawford is the Big Ten's fourth-leading scorer. On Thursday night, he was Northwestern's fifth-leading scorer in an 83-64 demolition of Iowa at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

That is all the proof anyone should need that the Wildcats are no longer a two-man offensive show with Crawford and John Shurna as the headliners.

"Teams have been keying on John and Drew all year," Alex Marcotullio said. "It's just time for other players to step up."

That is exactly what Shurna and Crawford's teammates did in the dominant 19-point victory. David Sobolewski led the way with a career-high 23 points, followed by Shurna with 17, Reggie Hearn with 16, Marcotullio with 13 and Crawford with 11.

The Wildcats (15-8, 4-6 Big Ten) three times had four players in double figures this season, but this is the first time that all five starters were in that category.

"That's a tremendous compliment to our unselfishness," said Marcotullio, who also finished with six assists.

During Northwestern's 2-6 Big Ten start, the team appeared to be waiting for breaks to fall their way and wound up losing three conference contents by a grand total of five points. With injuries decimating an already thin roster, it surely seemed like the Wildcats would have to wait at least one more year for the first NCAA Tournament invitation in school history.

But the depleted depth has forced coach Bill Carmody to shorten his bench and go with a smaller lineup, featuring three guards and Shurna at center. They have now embraced their lack of depth and begun to play with a sense of urgency that has put them back in the March Madness conversation.

"It's a game you have to get because you're at home if you want to be in the mix of anything," said Carmody, making a rare, unforced reference to the NCAA Tournament.

Northwestern refused to cool off after their upset victory over Illinois on Sunday in which they shot over 60 percent from the floor. The team shot 56 percent from the field and nailed 13-of-25 threes against the Hawkeyes.

An energized Sobolewski, who also racked up seven assists, drove the team in the early going with a concentrated effort on quickly pushing the ball up the court. This put Iowa back on their heels and gave Northwestern a 38-29 halftime lead.

"It's really hard to stop guys when you've got a full head of steam," Sobolewski said. "(Former Northwestern point guard Michael "Juice" Thompson) and I have been joking about people saying I hit a wall. (I) kind of use that stuff as motivation."

Northwestern also looked on top of its game defensively. The Wildcats stretched their 1-3-1 zone out towards the half court stripe, pressuring Iowa's perimeter players and forcing the Hawkeyes into 18 turnovers, which they converted into 20 points.

The Wildcats seem to have developed a killer instinct in catching and passing the Hawkeyes (13-12, 5-7) in the Big Ten standings. Second-half struggles were a large factor in putting the Wildcats in the early hole in the Big Ten that they are still digging themselves out of.

This time, Northwestern stretched its lead to as much as 24 in the second half, aided by the Hawkeyes picking up their sixth foul only 2:45 into the second half, putting Northwestern in the bonus.

At 5-6, the Wildcats are now tied with Illinois and Purdue for sixth in the conference standings. More importantly, they look like a completely different team than the one that suffered back-to-back losses by 20 points or more to Wisconsin and Minnesota in mid-January.

The Wildcats have now built a three-game winning streak and are playing their best basketball of the season. That may make the NCAA Tournament committee sit up and take notice. They certainly have gotten Nebraska's, Illinois' and Iowa's attention over the last three games.



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