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March 8, 2012

NU once again falls one shot short

The game was tied at 61 with about 40 seconds left in regulation when JerShon Cobb caught the ball on the right wing. What unfolded over the next few ticks of the game clock was symbolic of Northwestern's entire season.

Cobb, who was having his best game as a Wildcat and would wind up with a team- and career-high 24 points, was being guarded by Minnesota's Chip Armelin, and as the Gopher guard slid in front of him, the 6-foot-5, 205-pound Cobb thought he could take the 6-foot-3, 186-pound Armelin to the hole.

He was right.

Cobb lowered his shoulder and knifed toward the lane. Armelin stayed in a good defensive position until Cobb spun to his left and did a 360 into the paint, getting separation. He stopped in the middle of the key, about six feet from the basket, and floated a little teardrop jump hook toward the rim and over Armelin.

The ball reached the front of the rim and, somehow, just died. It didn't bounce off the orange iron but just laid there, as if time had stopped, waiting for gravity and rotation to determine where it would fall.

Like the ball, the game and Northwestern's entire season may have been in the balance at that moment, too. If the ball rolled in, Northwestern would have a two-point lead with 35 seconds to go and its first basket in more than four minutes. Because Minnesota didn't score again in regulation, the Wildcats may have also gotten a desperately needed victory and NCAA Tournament berth.

But the ball didn't roll in. It slowly, lethargically rolled backward instead of forward. Minnesota grabbed the rebound and, in a little more than five game minutes later, the Gophers would grab the game, 75-68, in overtime.

Cobb's shot did not determine the outcome of the contest. Both teams got one more shot at the basket in regulation, and the Wildcats have no one to blame but themselves for getting outscored 14-7 in the extra period, their normally efficient offense producing just one basket in six attempts and two turnovers.

The shot, though, was just another near miss in a season full of them for Northwestern. The Wildcats fell one basket short in regulation six times during their Big Ten season. If just one more shot had fallen in during those games, they might have already been a lock for the tournament before the ball was even tipped in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament today.

There was Meyers Leonard blocking Drew Crawford's shot at the buzzer in a 57-56 loss to Illinois. There was Crawford turning the ball over on a last possession in regulation at Michigan in a game the Wildcats would eventually lose, 66-64, in overtime. There was John Shurna's miss at the buzzer in a 58-56 loss to Purdue. There was another overtime loss to Michigan, a two-point loss to Ohio State and, of course, this one to Minnesota.

It always came down to a single basket, it seemed, and Northwestern was never able to get it. The Wildcats played six Big Ten games that were decided by two or fewer points or in overtime and lost them all. They played three overtime games and lost all of those, too.

One more hoop, in any of those games, could have meant the first NCAA invitation in school history. Instead, the Wildcats probably won't hear their name called by CBS' Greg Gumbel on Sunday evening, when the brackets are announced.

Technically, Northwestern still has a shot to get in, albeit a long one. The Wildcats don't have a bad loss, their strength of schedule is eighth in the country, and their RPI is 44 (before today's game, anyway). It would be a great story, and fans across the country would love to see the Cubs of college basketball get in.

The fact the Wildcats can't escape, however, is that they had 11 chances to beat an RPI Top 50 team this season and came away with just one win, against Michigan State. And in this must-win, first-round game on a neutral court against a team with a 6-12 conference record, they came up just short yet again.

That, in all likelihood, won't cut it.

If, however, Cobb's shot had rolled in instead of out, or if just one more shot had found the bottom of the net in one more game -- in January, in February, in March -- it might have been a different story.



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