By Adam Hoge-
EVANSTON, Ill. (CBS) – John Shurna stood hunched over with both feet on the sideline, his hands on his knees, staring at the court.
That’s not how it was supposed to end.
Just 3.1 seconds after Jared Sullinger went glass on a short turnaround jumper to give Ohio State a 75-73 lead, Shurna’s heave from just inside the half-court line hit the front-iron and fell short.
A 22-ounce basketball never carried so much weight for a program that desperately needed it to find its way inside the 18-inch diameter of the rim. And there’s no one Northwestern wanted to be holding onto that weight more than John Shurna.
The senior couldn’t help but hang his head for a few seconds as the pain seeped in.
“Disappointment,” Shurna said when asked what he was feeling in the moment. “Yeah, just disappointment. Kind of a tough way to go out.”
Doing his duty, Shurna got in line to shake the hands of the victors. Seconds later he stood with teammate Drew Crawford in almost the same spot he shot the desperate heave, staring at the floor.
That’s when Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips came over and had a lengthy chat with his two stars on the court.
“I just told them that they’re the leaders of our team and I just didn’t want to see them with their heads down as everybody was looking towards them,” Phillips told CBS Chicago after the game. “They had a whole locker room full of guys that were going to be responding to them as they walked in and nothing has changed. Our destiny is still our destiny and though this one would have been a great one to get, we didn’t get it, but we got to come back and get ready for Iowa.”
No one takes losses harder than Phillips, who is known for pacing the concourse with nervousness during games. But just seconds after a loss he called “excruciating”, he was there to pick up his two best basketball players.
“I was just trying to be supportive and obviously I told them they played their hearts out and I was so proud of them for what they did because that game could have easily been a 20- or 25-point differential easily,” Phillips said. “Ohio State could have just pulled away but they would not let that happen and that’s the kind of kids they are. That’s the kind of character they have.”
Despite the pain, Shurna showed that character moments later as he took the time to stop and sign a little kid’s purple arm cast on his way to meet reporters.
After sitting down at the table in the media room and listening to his head coach answer questions, Shurna addressed the shot that was just one inch too short.
“I thought it had a chance,” he said. “Sullinger kind of came in at the last second and I hoped for the best so that’s about all you can do.”
In a cruel way, Sullinger’s jumper with 3.1 seconds left had set up the perfect scenario for Shurna and a basketball program that has endured decades of disappointment. With one long heave, Shurna could have walked off the court in his last game at Welsh-Ryan Arena having all but sealed up Northwestern’s first ever NCAA Tournament berth.
“Right, but the last chapter hasn’t been written yet,” Phillips rightly pointed out.
And if there’s anyone who understood and appreciated the possibility of what could have been for Northwestern basketball in that moment, it’s Phillips. But he also understands what’s still at stake for a team in desperation. If the Wildcats want to receive a bid to their first-ever NCAA Tournament, they have to get a win at Iowa Saturday and win their first game at the Big Ten Tournament next Thursday in Indianapolis. Even then, Northwestern’s resume will still be among the most debatable on the bubble.
And that’s why in the midst of painful defeat, Phillips was right there lifting Shurna and Crawford up. He was also in the locker room after the game, as he usually is. What was said in that room will stay between the team, but nearly an hour after the game ended, players started slowly filing out with a look that hardly resembled the look they had on their faces when they left the court.
Shurna eventually emerged from the closed door carrying a pizza, a blue Gatorade and his framed jersey, a senior night memento had that would have had a whole new meaning had his final shot at Welsh-Ryan gone in. The forward was no longer looking at the floor, however. Instead, he glanced over with a familiar smirk on his face that suggested the page had already been turned.
Minutes later, Phillips came out of the locker room looking at his phone before stopping to take a minute to brag about his senior.
“I don’t want to overstate this, but I really do believe he epitomizes what a student athlete should be,” he said. “John stands for the good things and the right things in college athletics and I don’t have anything other than great admiration for a young guy like that.”
And that’s why anyone with a pulse Wednesday night couldn’t help but hope Shurna’s final heave found the bottom of the net.
Phillips of course was among those desperately wanting that to happen, but after pausing and shaking his head slightly in frustration, the athletic director looked up and once again gave a message of hope.
“We’ll see what the final chapter looks like. It’s yet to be written.”
Adam is the Sports Content Producer for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the White Sox, Blackhawks and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.