EVANSTON-Somehow, despite all the injuries and setbacks, Northwestern keeps finding a way to move the heart rates of Wildcat fans to dangerous levels.
In the latest in a series of patchwork starting lineups, three freshmen took the floor for the Cats against the No. 13 Ohio State Buckeyes. And boy, did they respond.
On a stage where one would expect freshmen to wilt under pressure, Kale Abrahamson, Tre Demps and Mike Turner showed the "next man up" mentality of this Northwestern squad. Though they are decimated by injuries, with only seven scholarship players currently available, the Cats will not give up on this season.
Against Ohio State, Abrahamson nailed three 3-pointers and a nifty "and-one" for 13 points, Turner dished out eight assists and Demps poured in 16 points, shooting 4-of-6 from behind the arc.
These players were expected to need a few years to develop. It was said they would only make small contributions this year, learning from senior Drew Crawford as the team made a run for its first NCAA bid.
But that didn't happen. Crawford was lost for the season, junior Jershon Cobb was suspended, and just last week fifth-year graduate student Jared Swopshire was sidelined for the rest of the year and freshman Alex Olah suffered a concussion.
All three freshman Wildcats came up big in their new roles against the Buckeyes, however. Demps, who took over the starting job from Abrahamson before a win over then-No. 12 Minnesota, said the Cats never doubted their chances.
"We still felt like we had a good chance of being competitive," Demps said.
For 37 minutes Thursday, it was hard to tell that Northwestern was missing four starters. It was plays like Abrahamson's fall-away 3 or Demps' reckless abandon when cutting to the basket that made it easier to forget.
"I always try to be aggressive," Demps said. "I know I can help with my playmaking and scoring."
However, Demps hasn't always had the opportunity to contribute. At various points in the year, each of the three stars from Thursday's game has spent more time on the bench than on the court. Now, with all of the bad luck that Northwestern has encountered, head coach Bill Carmody has no option but to keep these players on the floor as much as possible.
They haven't disappointed.
"A couple young guys, notably Kale and Tre, had their best games," Carmody said. "It was good to see. You're not jumping up and down, because you lost, but I like the way they came out and competed."
The way the young players responded against Ohio State did not go unnoticed by the more seasoned players on Northwestern's roster. Sophomore guard Dave Sobolewski said the progression of players like Abrahamson and Demps is apparent.
For senior Reggie Hearn, the guys who take the floor don't matter, so long as the effort is there. As Carmody repeated to his players in the days before the near-upset of Ohio State, hard work is the key.
"We've had these injuries, but we're not gonna use that as an excuse," Hearn said. "We have the intangible of heart and hustle, and that's something you've got to have in this game."
With a game against in-state rival Illinois on Sunday, Northwestern's new starting five will need to maintain the momentum. At the time of publishing, Olah's status for Sunday's game remained uncertain.
If he's out, Abrahamson, Demps and Turner can expect to find themselves playing comparable minutes to the 91 combined minutes the three played Thursday.
Carmody said paying attention to the minutes is an important consideration, but with only nine players available -- just seven of them on scholarship -- he had to keep the hot hands on the floor.
"I thought I was going to play James Montgomery [III]… but Kale and Tre were playing so well, I didn't really think about putting him in for those guys."
With all the adversity Northwestern has faced this year, a few added minutes hardly seems like an insurmountable challenge. The bigger difficulty will be maintaining the ability to compete at a high level as the season comes to a close.
These freshmen, while expected to play well, cannot be counted on to account for 56 percent of the team's offense, as they did against Ohio State.
Still, Northwestern doesn't seem too concerned with the details. This is a team that is solely focused on winning the few games they have left.
"We're not gonna back down," Sobolewski said. "No matter who's healthy, who's hurt, we're gonna keep on playing 'til the final buzzer of the last game of the year."