REVANSTON--Northwestern coach Bill Carmody called Davide Curletti "the Energizer Bunny" after the senior sparked the Wildcats to a stunning 81-74 upset of No. 6 Michigan State.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo had a different sort of name for the center who came up with the game of his life in his second career start. He simply called him "the difference."
"Oh, Curletti was the difference in the game, if you ask me," said Izzo. "He made a three, he made a bunch of free throws early. He missed a couple later, but he's the one that snagged those [offensive rebounds]. When we had it, he took them, and he scored on them."
Then he tipped his hat to his counterpart.
"Brilliant move by Bill [Carmody] to start him; he did a great job."
The irony is that Carmody wasn't planning on starting Curletti until Drew Crawford came down with flu. Who would have thought that a virus would be just what the doctor ordered for a Northwestern team reeling from two consecutive heartbreaking losses?
Carmody had discussed the potential of playing a smaller, quicker lineup against Michigan State on Saturday to combat the Spartan's athleticism. But Crawford's illness, which forced him to miss practice on Friday, called for a change of plans and opened the door for the real hero of the game.
"We were going to go small with [John Shurna] at center," Carmody said. "Then Drew, we weren't too sure if he was going to play. It was really just a game-time decision to go with Davide and see how Drew is."
Once Curletti got on the floor, he made it difficult to take him off. He racked up 17 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals in 36 minutes. His inside presence on Saturday that the Wildcats have been so desperately searching for.
"Give Curletti credit," remarked Izzo. "I thought he played extremely well. He played our centers, and that's been something we've been pretty solid on lately."
In the first half, against the best rebounding team in the Big Ten, the Energizer Bunny kept going and going, pulling down three big offensive boards, followed by two put backs and a pair of free throws to keep the hot-shooting Spartans in check. The Farmington Hills, Mich., product finished the half as tgyhe team's leading scorer, with 13 points, to go along with four rebounds, three assists, a block and a steal.
It was Curletti's tenacity under the basket that kept the Wildcats in the game during the first half, when Michigan State shot 65 percent from the floor and 71.4 percent from beyond the arc. He slowed down a bit in the second half, but his thunderous two-handed dunk over Adreian Payne -- punctuated by a primal scream -- was the defining Kodak moment for an NU team that wanted to prove that it could close out a win against a ranked team after letting opportunities slip away against Illinois and Michigan.
The victory also enabled Northwestern to scramble back into the hunt for that elusive first NCAA tournament berth in school history.
The Wildcats have been looking for a third scoring threat behind Shurna (22 points) and Crawford (20), and they found it, for one game at least, in Curletti, who finished 5-of-7 from the field.
His hustle was more contagious than Crawford's stomach flu. And Crawford, who received an IV treatment before the game, needed all the inspiration he could get to keep his energy level up.
"Once the game started and I see Davide out there working hard, I see all my teammates working so hard and it kind of fuels you and gets you going," said Crawford.
With an actual scoring threat inside, the Spartans defense could not just focus on Crawford and Shurna, who had struggled in the second halves of their two previous losses. The duo combined for 24 second-half points on Saturday as Northwestern (12-5, 2-3 Big Ten) put up 81 points against a Spartan defense that came into the game allowing just 59.6.
The Wildcats had four scorers in double figures for the first time since defeating Eastern Illinois nearly a month ago (Shurna, Crawford, Curletti and Reggie Hearn, who had 10 points and five rebounds), and they repeatedly made the overplaying Spartan defense pay with back-door cuts for baskets.
"Helping other guys is a great feeling," Curletti said. "Our offense is built around each other. Making backdoor cuts, making backdoor passes, and I really felt like tonight we were hitting on all cylinders. We barely ever broke out of our offense and we were really able to run it to perfection."