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February 21, 2013

Bruised and battered, but still fighting

EVANSTON-A bruise often looks worse the day after a fight.

As the swelling cuts off the flow of oxygen to the wound, it gains a purple hue. Even after the immediate pain is gone, the blemish remains.

For a Northwestern team that got cold-clocked Wednesday by Wisconsin 69-41, this season has been nothing but a collection of giant, purple bruises.

The team took an initial blow when junior guard JerShon Cobb was suspended for the season, then got sucker punched when senior forward Drew Crawford went down for the season with a torn labrum. A body shot in the form of a Jared Swopshire knee injury left Northwestern battered.

Though the Wildcats certainly miss Swopshire's presence much more than head coach Bill Carmody expected, the latest addition to a collection of bruises appears to have no relation to physical harm at all.

Instead, it's mental.

In a season where the Cats were expected to compete for an NCAA Tournament bid but have fallen victim to a slew of unfortunate injuries, the frustration level has mounted.

Carmody did not appear at Wednesday's press conference with his players, instead appearing alone after Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan spoke to the media.

"I hope they're a little frustrated," Carmody said. "It's not necessarily a bad thing. Guys are mad, and I'm glad of that."

Recent performances have given the Wildcats little to smile about. After an excellent performance in last week's Ohio State game, which Carmody said may have been "an aberration," Northwestern has scored just 41 points in each of its past two games.

Even worse, Northwestern seems to show no real sign of working its way out of a slump in which it has lost six of its last seven games. In these losses, the Wildcats have averaged just 48.8 points a game.

The subdued Wildcat head coach ignored a question asked Wednesday about positives that could be taken from the loss. However, at a certain point, the adjustments end and the players must produce, he said.

"The guys that are out there have to play better," Carmody said. "This is the time to play. They're getting their chance so they gotta come through."

But if there is a Band-Aid that the Wildcats can use to cover a bruise or two, it's that they know where they need to improve.

Reggie Hearn, who scored 13 points but shot just 4-of-14 from field, said the team recognizes how to make the offense more efficient.

"We just didn't finish off the plays," Hearn said. "If we can continue to put ourselves in positions like that… we can have success."

Neither Hearn nor Dave Sobolewski questioned the coaching decision to drain the shot clock on many possessions. It's not the system that is broken, Sobolewski said. Rather, Northwestern just needs to knock down its jump shots and get the ball into the paint more often.

With four games remaining in the regular season, the Wildcats likely have two good opportunities left to pick up a victory. Both Sunday's game at Purdue and a game on March 7 against Penn State are winnable games.

But Northwestern's ability to compete in these games will depend not just on the talent it can put on the court. It must also overcome the mental barrier that comes with a four-game losing streak.

If there's one thing that seemed fairly certain, it's that this Northwestern team doesn't lack motivation. Hearn and Sobolewski were confident that this was one obstacle the Wildcats could overcome.

Even though the season has been lost and few positives remain, they will continue to fight through the pain.

"We're not gonna go down without a fight," Hearn said. "[There's] not much time left in the season. This is no time to be tired, no time to give up."

They may be beaten. They may be bruised. But they aren't going away.



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