During a brief break following Tulsa's solid victory in game one, I put on my fancy media pass and tested just how far it could get me. I explored the behind-the-scenes action at the ESPN event, curiously searching for any sign of a dressing room belonging to Erin Andrews. Sadly, I had no luck, and although my play-it-cool face raised no suspicion, I thought it best not to ruffle any feathers. I stopped by the hospitality room and took advantage of the decadent spread, snagging myself a plastic plate and nearly overflowing it with complimentary goodies. I covertly scanned the room to see if I was over-indulging, but noticed many media members helping themselves to an equally impressive smorgasbord. Hey, we're journalists — we need to take what we can get.
After grubbing, I returned to my courtside seat and was disappointed. The clashing pep bands had left the building, having been replaced by a singular trumpet-toting ensemble. They were larger than the first two combined, and belted out an impressive rendition of Kanye West's "All of the Lights" upon my entrance, but the back-and-forth musical match before game one was nearly as entertaining as the basketball. I grumbled, realizing game two would be void of any such bout, but reassured myself that the competition on the court may make up for it.
In what many predicted to be the most competitive and well-balanced game of day one, the LSU Tigers and the Northwestern Wildcats took the court for the second game. The Wildcats, a team that made it to the NIT quarterfinals last year, are hoping to fire on all cylinders this season and earn their first ever NCAA Tournament berth. The Tigers, who have struggled with mediocrity the past few seasons, hope to step up as a competitor in the SEC this year.
Both teams moved the ball well to start, finding open opportunities from behind the arc and capitalizing on them. LSU freshman guard Anthony Hickey displayed his speed, ball-handling skills, and deep-ball ability as he drained an early three, following the bucket with a coast-to-coast break capped off with a lay-up moments later. The Tiger's head coach, Trent Johnson, could be heard yelling, "Don't chase!" and "Use your head!" from the bench as his team defended, and "Push!" as his team broke down the court after a defensive rebound. With just under eight minutes to go, LSU held an eight-point lead, 22-14. They expanded it to 11 with 5:30 remaining on a deep three-pointer from sophomore Ralston Turner. The Tigers' shutdown defense, combined with Hickey's ability to swim between defenders on the fast break, allowed them to swiftly extend the lead to 14 approaching the four-minute mark.
However, just as quickly as their lead grew, the Wildcats were able to cut it to eight with three minutes remaining in the first. While unable to do much on the defensive end, a three by Wildcat senior standout John Shurna narrowed the LSU lead to seven with just about two minutes to go. LSU was able to extend the lead to nine, ending the half with a 41-32 lead.
Northwestern opened the second half with back-to-back threes from Shurna and junior Drew Crawford, quickly cutting the LSU lead to three and forcing Trent Johnson to take a time-out. Coming out of the time-out, the Tigers stiffened their defense, shutting down the Wildcats for the next few possessions while producing on offense, increasing their lead to 45-38. The ever-present deep threat of Northwestern struck soon thereafter, and the Wildcats clawed within two, 48-46 with a little less than 16 minutes on the clock. After Tigers freshman Johnny O'Bryant III drained one of two foul shots, Northwestern junior guard Reggie Hearn buried a three from the top of the key to tie it up, 49-49.
The intensity noticeably picked up on both ends, and the atmosphere in the TD Arena became more and more electric as two of the tournament's premiere teams were neck-and-neck. Hearn hit a big three for the Wildcats to give them their first lead of the second half, 56-53. The excitement was short-lived, as sophomore Andre Stringer nailed a three for the Tigers on their next possession. With the teams even at 58-58, a time-out was taken, and the solo band sounded off on another powerful ballad. This time it was Kanye's "Power" that kept the excitement boiling during the momentary pause in play.
Coming out of the time-out, Northwestern's 1-3-1 trap defense gave the Tigers trouble, forcing a 10-second violation and allowing the Wildcats to climb to a 66-61 lead on the following possession with a mid-range jumper from Shurna, who was in the midst of a career day. Northwestern's lead fluctuated throughout the next few minutes, growing to as much as nine with 6:30 remaining. However, in a storming fashion, LSU cut it back down to 3 with four minutes to play.
Around the three-minute mark, with the lead still in Northwestern's favor at 78-75, chants of "V-C-U! V-C-U!" began erupting a sizeable group of Rams faithful in attendance as they awaited the start of their game against Seton Hall. All of the attention was still on LSU-Northwestern, though, as the Tigers climbed within two points with under two minutes to go.
A clutch jumper from Wildcats' sophomore JerShon Cobb that put Northwestern ahead by four was met by a three from the corner by Ralston Turner, cutting the lead to one with under one minute on the clock. The Wildcats charged right down court, and freshman Dave Sobolewski drained a three of his own, which effectively put the game out of reach for the Tigers.
With a final score of 88-82, this game certainly lived up to the hype. Northwestern showed persistence and discipline, fighting back from a nine-point halftime deficit to come away with a win. The games' clear cut star would have to be the Wildcats John Shurna, who finished 4-9 behind the arc and a total of 37 points. Be that as it may, LSU showed that it too will be a competitive team this year.