Eschmeyer era ends with loss to Gophers

Michael Dougherty

EVANSTON, Ill. — If the game plan was to employ the college version of “Hack-a-Shaq” on Northwestern’s Evan Eschmeyer, Gophers coach Clem Haskins picked the wrong guy to pick on.
Or did he?
Eschmeyer made 17-of-21 free throws as the Gophers (17-9, 8-8 in the Big Ten) committed 17 of its 23 fouls on the sixth-year senior. They knew they couldn’t stop Eschmeyer, but they contained him enough to come out with a 58-51 win.
Wildcats coach Kevin O’Neill runs his offense through Eschmeyer, and it’s as deliberate as death and taxes. Northwestern comes down with three guys on the perimeter and Eschmeyer down on the blocks, and they play catch.
Guards Julian Bonner, David Newman and Sean Wink take turns passing the ball down low to Eschmeyer, who then works a few post moves. If the moves work, he shoots; if not, he throws it back out and they start over.
It certainly isn’t must-see TV, but it has been effective — especially earlier in the season. Northwestern (14-12, 6-10) started the year out 14-6, 6-4 in the Big Ten, but has since lost six in a row, including a 69-63 loss on Feb. 17 at home to lowly Illinois.
“We just look like a team that has already played its best basketball, and is struggling right now,” O’Neill said. “I hope we bounce back, but this league is not an easy league to bounce back in.
“We’ve been beaten down mentally, our young guys especially, and I don’t think our senior leadership is strong enough to pull those guys through.”
The Wildcats celebrated senior day Saturday, saying goodbye to five seniors — Eschmeyer, point guard Julian Bonner, reserve forward Joe Harmsen and reserve guards Danny Allouche and Nate Pomeday.
Besides Bonner and Eschmeyer, the other three played a combined six minutes; it can be difficult to provide leadership with your butt planted on the bench. And Bonner contributed only three points on 1-of-8 shooting and five fouls.
Eschmeyer, meanwhile, is the essence of leadership — and he should be, considering he’s been at Northwestern four more years than his coach. Eschmeyer carries this team on his broad shoulders, but O’Neill said the burden is wearing the 24-year-old down.
“I go back to 14 offensive rebounds for them; we’re not making the hustle plays,” O’Neill said of the Gophers 14-5 offensive rebound edge (35-26 overall). “And when your All-Big Ten center has two offensive rebounds, you’re not making the hustle plays. That’s the problem, I think Esch has gotten beaten down over the year physically. His legs don’t look as fresh, and I think he’s hurting a little bit.”
Eschmeyer said despite the beating he took from the Gophers double and triple teams, he is not running on empty.
“I think I have a lot more in the tank,” Eschmeyer said. “My rebounds are down, and it’s easy to say the ball didn’t bounce my way, but that’s not going to be the case two games in a row. I’m going to have to figure out what’s going on, because I need to get more than five rebounds a game.”
O’Neill seems like the one who looks burdened. Perhaps it’s because he is pondering next year without Eschmeyer, as well as having to accept an NIT bid instead of going to the Big Dance.
“It’s too bad we have to settle for an NIT bid when we were 14-6 and in a position to get an NCAA bid,” O’Neill said.
Gophers freshman center Joel Przybilla had only four points and three rebounds to go along with four fouls. But he played some better defense on the crafty Eschmeyer than in their first meeting, when Eschmeyer scored 24 points and grabbed 15 boards in the Wildcats 58-55 win in early January.
“We planned on double-teaming him because we didn’t do that the last time, but he still took it to us,” Przybilla said. “We weren’t trying to foul him, we just weren’t getting the calls. But we kept at it and came away with the victory.”