EVANSTON--If you could not tell from the cardboard cutouts of his face in the stands, Saturday night was all about senior John Shurna. Northwestern's senior forward scored 18 points in the Wildcats 64-53 win over Minnesota to surpass Billy McKinney's 35-year old all-time school scoring record.
The packed house at Welsh-Ryan Arena went wild every time Shurna's name was mentioned on the PA system, saving their biggest ovation for his record breaking three-pointer from the top of the key with 10:45 remaining in the second half.
In a game Northwestern absolutely needed to win to make their first NCAA Tournament, the focus after the victory over the Golden Gophers was for once not on the Big Dance. Instead, it was on the selfless Shurna, who, as usual, put the focus on his team's accomplishments.
"Obviously it's an honor (to get the record) but I think it was more important that we defended home court tonight against a good Minnesota team," Shurna said.
The Gopher defense held Shurna scoreless for the first 16:20 of the game and it seemed as if the humble superstar might have to endure another several days of questions about a record he claimed was not on his radar. But a Shurna steal and breakaway jam gave Northwestern a 26-21 lead and Shurna a spark.
That is when the baby-faced assassin turned it on.
On Northwestern's next three offensive possessions, Shurna hit a three-pointer from the top of the key, drove in from the right wing for a finger roll over two defenders, and then drilled an NBA-range triple. He closed out his scorching stretch with a layup off a lob from Reggie Hearn and the Wildcats took a 36-28 lead into the break, and Shurna needed only five points in the second half to break the all-time mark.
Before those explosive last three minutes and 40 seconds, few watching could have predicted Saturday would be the night he took his rightful place in the history books.
Furthermore, few could ever have predicted Shurna would have been the one to break McKinney's all-time mark in 2008, when he arrived in Evanston as a scrawny, 6-foot-8, 195-pound tweener from Glen Ellyn (Ill.) Glenbard West High School. He came in during the junior year of Kevin Coble, who up to that point was the most heralded recruit of Bill Carmody's tenure in Evanston.
As a freshman, Shurna played in all 31 games but averaged just 7.3 points per game and was the team's fourth leading scorer, behind Coble, senior Craig Moore, and sophomore Michael "Juice" Thompson.
With the nucleus of Coble, Thompson, and Shurna returning the following year, Northwestern looked to finally have a team that would put them over the hump and into the school's first NCAA Tournament. But right before the season started, a foot injury sidelined Coble for the year. Northwestern fans were devastated, but the injury turned into a blessing of sorts.
The blessing was that the injury forced Shurna to become the Wildcats' go-to offensive option in his second year, far ahead of schedule. The team won 20 games and earned a berth in the NIT as the sophomore forward blossomed into one of the best scorers in the Big Ten, averaging 18.2 points per game.
The next year, after Coble announced he would not return for his senior season, Shurna once again led the team in scoring, but his scoring averaged dropped to 16.6 points per game numbers as he battled various injuries for most of the year. Without their leading scorer at full strength, Northwestern once again failed to reach the NCAA Tournament, but won two games in the NIT.
This season, a healthy Shurna has saved his best for last. He is averaging over 20 points per game and, with the win over Minnesota, Northwestern is alone in seventh place in the Big Ten, in prime position to break their notorious NCAA drought with four regular season games to play.
"He could always shoot the ball," Carmody said of Shurna. "I think he's really improved as a dribbler and a passer. And that dribbling helps him get to the basket a little bit and that makes him a real scorer. He's not just a catch-and-shoot kind of guy."
The night was indicative of the way in which the program has grown with Shurna, who is now 6-foot-9 and 215 pounds.
During Shurna's scoreless stretch for the majority of the first half, Northwestern never lost its composure. The Wildcats fell behind for only one possession, finding other ways to garner points, which has become their method during this late-season run of four wins in six games.
Shurna also showed that has worked to turn himself into more than simply a scorer. He turned in an all-around effort, leading the team in rebounding (five), assists (five), blocks (three) and steals (four, along with JerShon Cobb). His impact on the defensive end ignited the crowd and his teammates.
It was the Wildcats' best defensive effort in conference play, as they forced Minnesota into 21 turnovers.
And in typical Shurna fashion, he refused to make himself the center of attention, even on a night that, to everyone else, was all about him.
"We got key contributions from everyone, so I think it's just a good all-around win," he said.
One of those key contributions came from freshman point guard David Sobolewski, who led the team with 22 points. Although he and Shurna have only played together for one year, Sobolewski was inspired by Shurna's record-breaking performance.
"He's worked really hard for four years to get to that point so definitely that got us all pretty excited," he said.
"It's definitely been a good year," he added, "but we're not done yet."
The only act that could follow Shurna's night would be making the school's first NCAA Tournament. He now carries the title of Northwestern's all-time leading scorer. Adding that accomplishment could give him another: the greatest player in Northwestern basketball history.