Getty Images / Jonathan Daniel
Guard Michael Thompson #22 of the Northwestern Wildcats drives with the ball against the Indiana Hoosiers during the first round of the Big Ten Men's Basketball Tournament at Conseco Fieldhouse on March 11, 2010 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Now he can embrace the celebration of the Wildcats' first 20-win season.
The junior guard scored 11 of his 16 points, leading a second-half comeback that gave Northwestern a record-setting 73-58 victory over Indiana in the first round of the Big Ten tournament Thursday.
"It feels great to have won 20 games in a season, especially going 1-17 in conference my first year," he said. "We're excited for what we've done so far, but we're still working hard and trying to add more wins to it."
Thompson did everything he could to energize Northwestern's struggling shooters, even stealing a page from Michael Jordan's playbook by keeping his shooting arm raised after making shots.
But the seventh-seeded Wildcats (20-12) are hoping there are more memorable moments still to come.
It was Northwestern's first conference tourney win in five years and a day, and sets up a Friday quarterfinal contest against No. 6 Purdue. The second-seeded Boilermakers shared the regular-season conference title with No. 5 Ohio State and No. 11 Michigan State.
Northwestern also beat Purdue 72-64 on Jan. 16 in the only other meeting between the teams this season.
Two things will be different this time. Purdue won't have forward Robbie Hummel, who tore the ACL in his right knee. And if Northwestern has any hopes of making its first NCAA tournament appearance, it may need to keep winning in Indianapolis -- thoughts that are not lost on Northwestern's players.
Coach Bill Carmody wasn't thinking that far ahead Thursday.
"It (the win) is important to our guys because in the short term, we haven't been playing very well," he said. "This was a real important game for us. Twenty wins always sounds nice and it's real important and I told our guys we have one senior, Jeremy Nash, he knows the history. But he's thinking it's a new era."
Thompson is one of the biggest reasons for the changes.
After enduring an 8-22 season two years ago, Thompson has become a vital cog for the Wildcats -- especially Thursday when the Big Ten's top 3-point shooting team opened the game going 2 of 24 from beyond the arc.
Not surprisingly, the Wildcats trailed for the first 32 minutes until Thompson got his teammates in sync.
The defense forced five straight Indiana turnovers midway through the second half, leading to 10 unanswered points. That gave Northwestern its first lead of the game with 7:58 to go.
Then the catalyst quickly sealed it.
Thompson drove in for a 5-foot runner, followed that with a 3 and closed out the decisive 23-7 run with two more 3s that gave Northwestern a 62-52 lead with 4:09 to go.
"He's our best player and he's what makes our offense flow," Northwestern forward John Shurna said after finishing with 14 points, seven rebounds and four assists. "I think when he gets in rhythm like that, it really opens things up for us, and we just want to keep finding the hot hand."
Indiana never had another chance.
Verdell Jones scored 20 points and had six assists to lead Indiana (10-21). The only other Hoosier in double figures was Derek Elston with 10 points.
But the Hoosiers lost for the 12th time in 13 games, finished with a second straight losing season and will miss the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in seven years. Indiana has now lost five straight Big Ten tournament games and that wasn't even the most frustrating part for coach Tom Crean.
"The bottom line in this game was the points off turnovers, the turnovers came at very tough times for us,'' Crean said. ``There were times where I thought our youth showed, maybe where we were tentative. We had a couple of tough times with the ball and they made us pay."
So five days after Indiana prevented Northwestern from getting win No. 20, Thompson made sure it didn't happen again.
"I think it's just a tribute to these guys who have stepped up and played so well," Carmody said. "People talk about John Shurna and he's really improved, but Thompson has really had a great year for us, a super year for us and doing some really good things for us. They thought they were a good team and they're doing OK."