EVANSTON-There's something about Ohio State that seems to draw out the best in Northwestern.
On Feb. 14, shortly after learning that Jared Swopshire would miss the rest of the season, the Wildcats turned in perhaps their most inspirational performance of the season in a loss at Columbus.
Then last night, after three consecutive beatdowns by at least 20 points, Northwestern found its fighting legs again, going toe-to-toe with the No. 16 Buckeyes before ultimately falling 63-53.
For most of the second half, the Cats looked like a team battling for an NCAA tournament berth instead of one trying to avoid embarrassment. They shot 47.8 percent from the field, 44.4 percent from beyond the arc, and even nailed all five of their free-throw attempts to finish a perfect 9-for-9 on the game.
Each team finished with 30 rebounds after the Wildcats outrebounded the Buckeyes by four after halftime, and the Northwestern bench outscored Ohio State's backups by a 14-11 margin.
None of it mattered, however, as turnovers proved to be the Wildcats' undoing. The scoreboard at Welsh-Ryan Arena showed a result similar to six of the last eight games played in Evanston. Northwestern was competitive for the first time since Valentine's Day, but another red "L" is all the team has to show for its efforts.
"It was a lot of fun to play in a competitive game, but that's not what we play for," sophomore guard Dave Sobolewski said. "We come into every game trying to win."
They twice took the lead down the stretch, the final time on a Reggie Hearn 3-pointer with 4:13 remaining in the game that gave Northwestern a 49-48 lead.
But if it feels like the game slipped out of the team's fingers after that, it didn't. It was stolen.
In those final minutes, Ohio State's athleticism finally showed. Three straight Northwestern possessions resulted in three straight Buckeye steals. The quick hands of Sam Thompson, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Shannon Scott ripped the ball -- and ultimately the game -- away from the Wildcats.
Though Northwestern would finish the game with 15 total turnovers, those three hurt the most. The small lead turned into a six-point deficit faster than Alex Olah could lumber back down the court after Scott grabbed the final steal of the night.
"Their defense anticipated some stuff," head coach Bill Carmody said. "We just turned it over a few times at the wrong time."
It is not like Ohio State needed the help. Smith Jr. dominated Northwestern on the offensive end, scoring 24 points on 7-of-13 shooting, including a 3-pointer with 3:57 remaining to put the Buckeyes back ahead for good.
Despite Smith Jr.'s offensive efforts, Ohio State coach Thad Matta praised the defensive intensity of Scott, especially in the final minutes. In Matta's eyes, the pressure on the defensive end was key.
"That was probably the difference," Matta said. "We were able to turn them over 15 times."
The frustrating part? Northwestern is not normally so careless with the ball.
Sure, this Wildcat team has shot poorly, been inefficient at rebounding and struggled to play defense. But Northwestern doesn't turn the ball over at a high rate. In fact, the Cats rank eighth nationally in fewest turnovers per game, averaging just 10.7 per contest.
In a loss against Purdue, the Cats had just 11 turnovers. A drubbing at hands of Wisconsin saw Northwestern give the ball up just seven times. On Valentine's Day against the Buckeyes, Northwestern turned it over nine times.
The last time the Wildcats turned the ball over more than it did on Thursday was on Jan. 3, when they threw the ball away 19 times in a loss against Michigan.
The irony here is obvious. On a night when everything else went right for the Wildcats -- when Sobolewski stepped up to score 13 points and Kale Abrahamson played his best game of his young career, when they held their own on the glass and the free-throw shooting woes that plagued the team all year disappeared -- the turnover problems showed up to doom them.
During a week of startling upsets across the nation, Northwestern had a shot to pull off its signature win of the season. But the Wildcats ultimately couldn't hold on.
They must have thought it was the basketball.