Reggie Hearn realizes his time is winding down. He also insists Northwestern still could reach the NCAA tournament for the first time.
"We think we can do it," said Hearn, a senior. "We think we have the guys to do it."
Beating No. 2 Indiana would have been a nice step. Instead, the Wildcats came up short.
Cody Zeller scored 21 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, and Indiana beat Northwestern 67-59 on Sunday.
Jordan Hulls added 15 points. Christian Watford scored 14, and the Hoosiers (16-2, 4-1 Big Ten) hung on after things got tense down the stretch.
They led by as much as 17 in the first half and were up 31-17 at intermission, but Northwestern (11-8, 2-4) threw them out of sync with a 1-3-1 trap in the second half, leading to rushed shots by Indiana. The Wildcats were also more aggressive on offense, pulling within five three times only to fall short.
"We didn't necessarily try to bleed the clock as much," Hearn said. "We were just executing our offense better."
But the Hoosiers hit 7 of 8 free throws in the final 57 seconds to prevail after seeing a six-game win streak end with a loss to Wisconsin last week.
"They just kind of sped us up for awhile," Zeller said. "We were kind of panicked for awhile. That's what their defense kind of forces you to do. Once we started getting into the middle, getting to the baseline, then we started getting open shots."
Zeller, the Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year, hit 9 of 10 free throws and dominated inside as Indiana pounded the Wildcats 36-24 on the glass.
"It just seemed like he was everywhere," Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said. "He gets to the line a lot and makes his foul shots."
Victor Oladipo scored seven points for Indiana, but hit a key 3-pointer late in the game after taking a blow to the right eye midway through the second half. That happened right before Northwestern's Dave Sobolewski made a 3, and he had a patch on his right eye after the game.
Oladipo said Sobolewski was "kind of doing a swim move" right before the shot and they collided.
He said he would have the eye examined once the team returned home.
Hearn scored 22 for Northwestern, which refused to go away quietly in this one after beating No. 23 Illinois on Thursday.
Overmatched in the early going, the Wildcats scored eight straight to pull within 47-42, a free throw by Hearn with 6:34 left in the game capping that run.
Zeller than scored on a layup and got called for a foul on the play. After Sobolewski hit 1 of 2 free throws for Northwestern, Zeller tipped in a miss by Hulls. Oladipo hit a long 3 to make it 54-43 with 4:52 left, but Northwestern wasn't finished.
Three free throws by Hearn and a 3-pointer from the corner by Jared Swopshire (13 points) cut it to 56-51. Swopshire's layup made it 58-53 with just over two minutes left, but the Hoosiers hung on from there.
"It took us a little bit to get the ball where we wanted it against their 1-3-1," coach Tom Crean said. "And I think they'll see on the film where we missed some opportunities and how we wanted to attack it, where we wanted to get the ball, but we reversed it. And that was the key. The other night against Wisconsin, it was almost two to one on balls being shot on the first side rather than the second and the third side."
Against Northwestern, he saw a team that was "locked in to what's important."
With most of the crowd decked out in cream and crimson, the Hoosiers wasted no time taking control.
Watford scored 11 in the first half and had eight as Indiana grabbed a 13-4 lead, and when it looked as if Northwestern might claw its way back into this one, Indiana answered with nine straight.
They got two tip-ins from Zeller and a 3 from Watford in transition before Hulls drove for a layup that made it 26-9 with 4:33 left, crashing to the court as the ball fell through the net.
But Northwestern regrouped in the second half. The trap helped, even if Indiana finished with just six turnovers.
"If we defend, we'll be OK," Sobolewski said. "That's about it. We started defending really well in the second half. We went to the 1-3-1 zone and it was causing them trouble. They weren't getting the shots they wanted. They were turning the ball over. You could tell, they were a little sped up."