Vukusic's play key in Northwestern's victory
BY JOHN MULLIN
Posted on Sat, Dec. 18, 2004
CHICAGO - (KRT) - He was late coming out of the locker room after the game because he was busy eating birthday cake and he had to endure good-natured ribbing from teammates as he talked about his role in Northwestern's 53-44 victory over Seton Hall.
But Vedran Vukusic will take this kind of birthday anytime.
With Northwestern (4-4) struggling and trailing 39-38 with eight minutes remaining Saturday, the 22-year-old junior forward from Croatia, simply took over a game that was slipping away from the Wildcats. Vukusic collected a pair of layups, a three-pointer and two steals in the span of three minutes and effectively secured Northwestern's third straight victory and second in a row over a winning team.
"He's getting that go-to feeling and he's starting to really step up," coach Bill Carmody said. "I wish we could get him more shots."
Vukusic finished with a game-high 14 points to go with seven rebounds, two assists, no turnovers and two blocked shots. Guard T.J. Parker contributed 13 points and center Mike Thompson had 12 in a game where he shot better under pressure from the field (4 of 10) than he did at the free throw line (4 of 11).
"That's something we'll work on tomorrow," Thompson said, laughing.
What Northwestern worked on before a crowd of 4,306 Saturday, however, was defense. Seton Hall (4-3) has four starters averaging double figures but the Pirates had no one in double figures and shot an appalling 28.6 percent.
Seton Hall center Kelly Whitney, from Marshall High School, was limited to a season-low six points on 2 of 15 shooting by a swarming defense. Virtually every Wildcat got into the act at one time or another swatting at the ball anytime Whitney put it on the floor.
"We knew coming in that he was their go-to guy and I wanted to take him out of the game," said Thompson, who led Northwestern with nine rebounds.
He thought the defense got inside Whitney's head as the game wore on.
"The defense was making him afraid to dribble and that helped a lot," he said.
Seton Hall had 21 offensive rebounds to offset their poor overall shooting partially. The Pirates put in eight points off offensive rebounds to overtake Northwestern at 39-38 before Vukusic's explosion, which coincided with Seton Hall suffering a turnover, blocked shot or offensive foul on five of six possessions and going nearly five minutes without scoring.
The very physical game saw players sprawled on the floor repeatedly in the second half but it was the kind of matchup that can only help Northwestern getting ready for the Big Ten season in January.
"You have to have some physical games," Parker said. "Michigan State's going to be the same thing."
© 2004, Chicago Tribune.