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December 4, 2012When Drew Crawford toed the free-throw line with 1.8 seconds left, much more than a two-point Northwestern lead was at stake. His team's psyche and possibly its season also hung in the balance.
Crawford, who led the Wildcats with a game-high 19 points, had a calm look on his face as he eyed the rim, belying the frenetic and wild previous 10 minutes that had seen Northwestern's 18-point lead dwindle to just two.
The senior leader matter-of-factly sunk the first free throw, then the second, to ice a 74-70 win that was as impressive as it was galling: as good as the Wildcats looked building their massive second-half lead, they looked equally as bad frittering it away.
If Crawford had missed those shots, what had been an epic Northwestern performance for more than 30 minutes could have gone to waste in a setback from which the Wildcats may not have been able to recover.
Northwestern (7-2), coming off of two devastating losses, was on the road facing Baylor (5-3), a team that had waxed them 69-41 last season and had knocked off defending national champion Kentucky on Saturday.
The Wildcats came out cold, hitting just one of their first 10 shots, and trailed 8-2 with 14:54 left in the first half after a Brady Heslip 3-pointer.
Then Northwestern, instead of reeling, found its resolve.
The Wildcats, who had been blown out by Maryland and stunned by UIC in their last two outings, turned that early six-point deficit into a 35-32 halftime lead after Dave Sobolewski nailed a triple from the wing just before the buzzer.
Despite hitting just 3-of-11 shots from beyond the arc, the Wildcats built their lead with -- get this -- rebounding. The suddenly feral Cats outrebounded bigger and more athletic Baylor 18-8 in the first half, including an 8-2 edge on the offensive boards.
Those numbers are about as unheard of as 60-degree December temperatures in Chicago.
The onslaught continued in the second half. The Wildcats were playing with such grit on both ends of the floor that Sobolewski was warned for taunting, of all things, after hitting a 3 that opened the lead to 18 points. After Crawford again extended the lead to 18 with a monstrous, two-handed baseline dunk with 10:28 left, he got a technical foul for hanging on the rim.
That's when things started to unravel for Northwestern.
A big 3-pointer from Gary Franklin narrowed the Wildcat lead to 56-44 with 8:55 left, and the Baylor crowd, quiet for most of the night, began to make noise. The Bears suddenly awoke from hibernation and began to apply full-court pressure, prompting a slew of NU's season-high 15 turnovers.
The lead shrunk to single digits with 5:09 left after a 3 by Pierre Jackson. Reggie Hearn, who scored 17 points and grabbed a team-high 10 rebounds in perhaps the best performance of his career, fouled out with 2:31 left.
The Wildcats, in the double-bonus, then started missing free throws. Jared Swopshire made 1-of-2, but Alex Olah, who hit 2-of-2 on his first trip to the line, missed both the next time. Sobolewski did the same just 20 seconds later, barely grazing the front end of the rim.
Two straight backcourt turnovers, by Swopshire and Alex Marcotullio, allowed the lead to dwindle to five with 43 seconds left.
Nobody in purple, it seemed, wanted the ball.
With 28 seconds left, Sobolewski threw the ball to Swopshire on an inbound play near the sideline, and Swopshire, instead of holding the ball for an impending foul, tried to give it back to Sobolewski, who turned it over.
Jackson, fouled by Olah, made two free throws to make it 70-67 with 23 seconds left.
Baylor was fouling desperately, but the Wildcats failed to put the Bears away on the free-throw line. Sobolewski and Swopshire each made just 1-of-2, leaving the door slightly open.
On Baylor's next possession, the bizarre happened -- 6-foot-1 Sobolewski blocked a shot by 7-foot-1 Isaiah Austin, who then recovered to hit a triple and make it 72-70.
That's when Crawford took the matters into his own hands, stopping the string of six misses in eight attempts and making both of his free throws.
Northwestern wound up with all five starters in double figures but got only three points out of its bench. Sobolewski (13 points), Swopshire (12) and Olah (10) all finished the game with four fouls.
The Wildcats wound up with a 37-24 rebounding edge, including 10-5 on the offensive glass, in no small part because they eschewed their typical zone defense in favor of a man-to-man.
Northwestern made just 18-of-29 free throws, but Baylor failed to capitalize, sinking just 19 of 29.
Jackson led Baylor with 18 points and six assists.
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