After a nine-game losing streak, the loss of multiple starters to injury, and yet another missed opportunity to go dancing, Northwestern's season finally, mercifully came to an end Thursday night with a 73-59 loss at the hands of the Iowa Hawkeyes.
In a season that failed to meet almost all expectations, the end brought with it a sense of relief. For the first time in a month and a half, Northwestern's losing streak will not continue to grow.
Yet again, the Wildcats fell into an early hole against the Hawkeyes, trailing 11-0 after seven minutes. And once again Northwestern almost climbed its way out.
But just as they did all season, the Cats ultimately fell short.
For senior Alex Marcotullio, who came into this year with hopes of reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history, leaving Northwestern in this manner is far from easy.
"It was really difficult, especially for the senior class," Marcotullio said. "But that's basketball. You're going to have to deal with injuries and it's really tough for us being our last year and having all these little fluke things happen to us. But it's no excuse."
When Northwestern dominated Purdue on Feb. 2, tossing in 11 three-pointers en route to a 75-60 victory, the season hardly seemed lost. The Wildcats were 4-6 in Big Ten play, not a disappointing record given the loss of Drew Crawford to season-ending shoulder surgery and JerShon Cobb to a violation of team rules.
But then it all went wrong. Jared Swopshire and Alex Olah both were injured against Iowa on Feb. 9, and the Wildcats could not recover. Though Olah would return after recovering from a concussion, Swopshire underwent season-ending arthroscopic knee surgery.
And after getting hit with that haymaker, Northwestern, which had been absorbing blows all season, finally fell to the canvas, losing its last nine games in a row.
Sure, the Wildcats made several games competitive down the stretch, once against Michigan State and twice against Ohio State. But they also were blown out a few times, including a three-game stretch in mid-February when Northwestern lost three consecutive games -- to Illinois, Wisconsin and Purdue -- by at least 20 points.
The meat-grinder that was the 2013 Big Ten beat up even the best teams, leaving league champion Indiana with four conference losses. So while Hearn and Marcotullio strived to deliver victories to their teammates and embattled coach Bill Carmody, reality served as a harsh reminder of the discrepancy in talent that Northwestern faced on a nightly basis.
Yet through it all, Carmody, whose future as head coach will be decided in the coming days, never doubted the effort of his senior class.
"I just told [Hearn and Marcotullio] in the locker room they will never have any regrets, either one of them, or any of the other guys too," Carmody said. "Because they will never say, well, I wish I had done this or practiced harder or dribbled to my left better or shot better or worked at it more, because they both did. And they're both guys who have class and they carry themselves with dignity."
And so, as they had done all season, Hearn and Marcotullio led yet another rally against Iowa. Down by as many as 18 points in the second half, Northwestern mounted a comeback that brought the Wildcats to within seven points. In one five-minute stretch, Hearn and Marcotullio accounted for 14 of 15 Northwestern points.
But it could not last. A 3-pointer by Iowa's Roy Devyn Marble with 8:17 left pushed the lead back to 10 and essentially ended the rally as the Wildcats would not get closer than eight points again.
In many ways, this final contest could not have been more fitting. In a game where so much went wrong -- Northwestern was outrebounded by 17 and shot just 32.0 percent from the floor and 16.7 percent from beyond the arc -- the Wildcats still had a chance of pulling out a win.
In the same sense, a season that seemed shattered following Crawford's injury appeared salvageable midway through the season. But with Swopshire's knee injury and Marble's 3 on Thursday night, the hope vanished from each situation.
The game and the season were lost.
With 46 seconds left in his career, Hearn nailed a 3-pointer from the right side of the arc. There was neither a smile on his face nor any sign of celebration. It was an act of desperation, an attempt to stave off the final buzzer.
Still, the horn sounded, signifying the end of the season and a career.
After months of fighting, the Wildcats were finally knocked out.