Big Ten

Scary night for Northwestern, but Cats have legitimate NCAA tournament resume

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USA TODAY

Scary night for Northwestern, but Cats have legitimate NCAA tournament resume

If this is to be the year Northwestern finally reaches the NCAA tournament, you can look back on Saturday night's win over Dayton and the sheer fact that it wasn't a loss.

The Wildcats' nearly collapsed in epic fashion, dominating for 30 minutes before watching a 23-point halftime advantage evaporate practically down to nothing while somehow holding off the visiting Flyers for a 67-64 victory at the United Center.

Northwestern made just one basket over the game's final 10 minutes. The Cats made six total shots in the second half and missed a worrisome nine free throws on the night.

But a win is a win, as they say, and for a program that historically hasn't seen a lot of those, this is a victory the Cats were happy to claim.

"We knew they were going to make their push at the end. In games like this last year, I think we weren't as mentally tough, and sometimes we might have turned the ball over," Vic Law said after the game. "Or even in games earlier this season, we had to take our lumps down the stretch in games, the Notre Dame game. I think we learned from our mistakes, and we're becoming a lot more mature."

"Showing the growth of this team and this program, in years past, this was a game that maybe we would have given up that lead in the second half, and we maybe wouldn't have won that game, wouldn't have made those tough plays," Sanjay Lumpkin said. "Lot of guys stepped up and made big free throws down the stretch. It was great to see that growth, as Vic just said. And it was mature of us."

While the final 20 minutes Saturday didn't inspire much confidence in outside observers, maybe this is a sign of growth, and certainly the program seems to be taking the steps head coach Chris Collins is always talking about.

For the first time in a long time, the Cats have a legitimate tournament resume as they exit the non-conference portion of their schedule. Northwestern sits at 9-2 through 11 games with wins over name programs Texas, Wake Forest and Dayton. Its two losses very easily could've been wins, but they still don't look bad: narrow defeats by a combined six points against currently ranked Notre Dame and Butler teams. A decent showing during Big Ten play would figure to put the Cats in the discussion for a spot in the 68-team field. A slightly better-than-expected showing with a marquee win or two — not impossible considering Northwestern has two wins apiece over Indiana, Purdue and Wisconsin during Collins' tenure — could make things real interesting.

"I just believe we're a team that's good," Collins said after Saturday's game. "Whether we are or not, that's up to you to determine. We come into games like this believing we're going to win. And that's, to me, the steps we've taken. I think in the past we've had good attitudes and we've come into games like this hoping that we'd play well. We certainly don't play to lose. But maybe not having that belief that we're supposed to win games like this. I thought coming into this game, these last two days, like our guys had an attitude that this is a game we're supposed to win, and I love that. That's what the good programs do.

"We have a long way to go. We're not close to where we want to be. We still have to get healthy. ... I think we've got a lot better basketball to play. But from what we've been through, the schedule we've played through 11 games, I think we've played six high major opponents in 11 games. To be 9-2 and to play teams like Butler and Notre Dame, you've got to feel good about where we're at. I know our guys do."

There are plenty of reasons to be concerned coming out of Saturday's near-disaster. This isn't the first time this happened this season, as Law alluded to. Northwestern led in the final minute in each of its losses, especially and maddeningly fumbling away that game against Notre Dame.

Saturday saw the Cats race out to their huge lead, up by 22 with 10 minutes left. But then they ran out of gas. Collins talked about it.

"I thought we got fatigued. I just did," Collins said. "I thought we got tired, and I thought we expended a lot of energy the first 30 minutes. ... I thought we were just kind of trying to get through the rest. Every dead ball, I saw guys on their knees, and I just kept telling them, 'eight minutes, six minutes, four minutes, two minutes.' And I thought more than us not wanting to win or not expecting to win, I just thought their quickness and athleticism kind of wore us down a little bit. And we were just trying to get to the finish line."

They barely made it. Another few minutes, and they might've been passed. That's not going to fly against the Wisconsins, Indianas and Purdues once Big Ten play starts.

But from a big-picture standpoint, Northwestern is still very much alive when it comes to reaching the Big Dance for the first time ever and it has a pretty nice resume to back it up. Conference play will determine the Cats' ultimate fate, and the biggest key to reaching the Madness will obviously be avoiding the horrendous losing streaks that have doomed Collins in his first three seasons: seven games in 2014, 10 in 2015 and an eight-of-10 skid last season.

But as for now, like the man said, "you've got to feel good about where we're at."

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

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Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

Tough news out of Evanston this morning: Northwestern announced that running back Jeremy Larkin will retire immediately after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis.

Cervical stenois is the narrowing of the spinal canal in one's neck, according to Mayo Clinic. Larkin's condition is thankfully not life-threatening, though it does prevent him from continuing to participate in the game of football. 

"Football has been a lifelong passion and it has been a process to reconcile the fact I won't be on that field again, given I've played this game since I was five years old," Larkin said.

"I'm extremely appreciative of the Northwestern sports medicine and athletic training staffs for uncovering this condition, and for my coaches and the medical staff for always putting my health first.

"I came to this University to engage at the absolute highest level on the field and in the classroom, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to continue one of those while supporting my teammates from the sideline." 

Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald called the news "heartbreaking."

"This is heartbreaking because I see every day how much Jeremy loves the game, loves his teammates, and loves to compete," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "But this is the absolute best possible outcome for him.

"The discovery of this condition allowed Jeremy and his family to make an informed decision for his long-term health and well-being. For those of us who have known Jeremy Larkin since his high school days, his future is exceptionally bright. I can't wait to see the impact he makes in our world."

Larkin is a sophomore from Cincinnati. He finishes his Northwestern career with 156 carries for 849 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

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Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

Former University of Illinois tennis star Kevin Anderson completed a marathon upset against an all-time great on the highest stage of professional tennis.

Anderson came back from two sets down to beat Roger Federer in Wimbledon’s quarterfinals 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 13-11 on Wednesday morning. He will play in the semifinals of the tournament for the first time in his career.

As a native of South Africa, Anderson played three seasons with the Fighting Illini and won the NCAA doubles championship during the 2005-06 season as a sophomore. The 32-year-old was a three-time All-American in singles at Illinois.

Now, as the eighth ranked singles player on the ATP World Tour, Anderson is a force to be reckoned with at the professional level. He made it all the way to the US Open final in 2017.

The former Illini star will look to keep his recent success going when he represents Illinois in the semifinals of Wimbledon this Friday.