When writers describe a game as an emotional rollercoaster, this is what they have in mind.
Northwestern was down by 13 points 10 minutes into the game, was up by 10 with 10 minutes left in the game, and then had to hit four of its five free throws in the final 16 seconds to withstand a furious rally and down Iowa, 70-66, to keep its NCAA dreams alive.
After losing five conference games by five points or less or in overtime, it was a welcome change for a Wildcat squad gunning for the first NCAA Tournament invitation in school history.
With 10 seconds left, John Shurna missed the front end of a one-and-one with Northwestern clinging to a 68-66 lead. Iowa's Josh Oglesby then came down and took an uncontested 3-pointer that just missed with three seconds to go.
Shurna came down with the rebound and Iowa fouled Alex Marcotullio, who calmly sank two free throws with just two seconds to go to clinch the all-important victory for Northwestern.
This was a must-win game for the Wildcats. A loss in Iowa City would have forced Northwestern (18-12, 8-10 Big Ten) to win the Big Ten Tournament to claim a tournament bid. Now, conventional wisdom says that two wins next week in Indianapolis would make the Wildcats a lock to make the 68-team field, and one win could even do it, depending on how mid-major conference tournaments play out.
Drew Crawford led Northwestern with 18 points, seven rebounds and five steals, while JerShon Cobb had his best game of the season with 13 points and three assists.
Coming off of an emotional 75-73 loss to Ohio State on Wednesday night, Northwestern came out flat and Iowa took a commanding 26-11 lead halfway through the half. That's when the Wildcats turned the game around dramatically.
Fueled by 13 first-half Iowa turnovers and uncharacteristically strong offensive rebounding, Northwestern went on a 31-9 tear to take a 42-35 halftime lead. The Wildcats hit nine free throws during the run -- including two instances of three straight, by Crawford and David Sobolewski, who were each fouled on three-point attempts -- and came up with six steals, including three by Crawford.
Ironically, Shurna, Northwestern's leading scorer, picked up two early fouls and was a non-factor in the half, scoring just three points. The Wildcats also made only 3-of-11 shots from long distance in the opening stanza.
Northwestern pushed its lead to 11 on a Shurna dunk with 16:18 left in the game and seemed in control, but the Hawkeyes wouldn't go away. They continued to chip away at the lead and cut it to 66-64 after a Matt Gatens jumper with two minutes to go, setting up the wild finish.
Gatens, who came into the game as one of the hottest three-point shooters in the country, led Iowa with 17 points but hit just 2-of-7 shots from beyond the arc.
Iowa outrebounded Northwestern 27-24, but the Wildcats held a 13-5 edge on the offensive glass.
Northwestern will play Minnesota in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday.