There are hundreds of memorable Gus Johnson calls. You could argue that the finest of all came on Feb. 29, 2012.
The play was going nowhere. Northwestern trailed Ohio State by three with 17 seconds remaining. A win, and the Wildcats were all but guaranteed to crack the NCAA Tournament Field.
Reggie Hearn inbounded the ball from the left baseline, finding John Shurna at the right wing. Guessing correctly that NU would look for an open three, Ohio State pressed the perimeter. For several seconds, no one was in the key.
Shurna, tightly guarded, dribbled with his left and sent the ball to Jershon Cobb. Alex Marcotullio raced to screen Shurna’s defender, and then backed off to the top of the key. With 11 seconds left, Cobb passed to Marcotullio.
“They’re going to have go for three,” Johnson called on the BTN telecast. They did. The Cats were wasting time. So Marcotullio made a single dribble and lined up the most important shot of his career.
“Marcotullio… OH… He hit it! And we’re tied at 73… What a game!”
There was Johnson's famous “Heartbreak City” when UCLA stormed back to beat Adam Morrison and Gonzaga in the 2006 Sweet Sixteen. There was “Sorrentine… from the parking lot” when Vermont upset Syracuse in 2005. Yet none quite matched the relative emotional intensity of NU-Ohio State. Welsh-Ryan Arena was swept up in the gravity of the situation. It was nothing like this quiet, disappointing season.
You know the end of the story. Jared Sullinger took the pass from Aaron Craft and banked in the shot that sunk Northwestern. And more than one year later, we’re still waiting.
Now a senior, Marcotullio takes the floor for the final time against Penn State on Thursday. He will never be mentioned among the list of greatest NU basketball players. And barring a Big Ten Tournament run, he will not be part of the first NU team to reach the Big Dance.
Regardless, his name will be tied to one of the best memories in team history. They play it on team commercials. The game provided a miniature of NU basketball: they were just so close.
On Senior Night, the loudest cheers might be reserved for Hearn. But I dare you to find me anyone who didn’t appreciate Marcotullio. He worked hard. He was polite and gracious. And he could shoot.
After Marcotullio’s sophomore season, his career appeared to be on the upswing. He averaged 6.2 points per game in the presence of Shurna and Juice Thompson, and shot 36 percent from behind the arc.
But he never quite broke through. Last season, his scoring output dipped. His minutes and opportunities decreased. He was a role player and nothing more.
Despite the frequency of injuries, the same has been true this season. He’s down to about four points per game on 31 percent three-point shooting. And this year’s team has no hope of reaching the tournament. The Cats simply hope to stop their six-game losing streak.
But through all the adversity and disappointment, Marcotullio commanded respect. He filled whatever role the team needed. In the emotional win against then-No. 12 Minnesota, he turned the game around by leading the 1-3-1 zone. It never showed up in the box score, but impacted the outcome of the game.
Marcotullio cannot dream of next season. His career will likely end in the Big Ten Tournament. The Cats have fallen to 4-12 in conference play, with injuries their downfall.
As the losses mount, the seniors continue to earn respect. Marcotullio still plays with the same intensity he did three years ago. Hardened by losses, the seniors still show the character that made fans love them in the first place.
Marcotullio will not go out in the same dramatic circumstances of Feb. 29, 2012.
But he deserves to have his name linked to Northwestern basketball history. That shot was so close to meaning something more.