Fruendt finally breaks out for NU

INDIANAPOLIS -- Northwestern junior Nick Fruendt couldn’t believe how open he was.

Fruendt had the ball at the top of the key, and no one was anywhere near him. It was too good to be true, and he over-thought it immediately.

He began his shooting motion, then stopped and his body jerked forward. Still wide-open with nobody closing in on him, Fruendt decided he had to shoot. To pass the ball would look foolish. But now out of synch, his shot clanked off the front of the rim.

“I was so wide open,” Fruendt said laughing. “I tried to make it perfect. If I had just caught it and shot it naturally, I would have knocked it down.”

In Fruendt’s three years at Northwestern, his chances at wide-open shots have about numbered his opportunities in key games -- few. But when Wildcats coach Bill Carmody called upon No. 15 Thursday against Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament’s opening round, Fruendt came through as if it’s what he always does.

Once he got past his first awkward 3-pointer, Fruendt calmed down and finished with seven points, two rebounds and one assist in 11 minutes off the bench in Northwestern’s 75-65 win over the Golden Gophers. It was the most minutes he had played and most points he had scored in a Big Ten Tournament game.

“I’ve tried to make the best out of the situation at hand,” Fruendt said. “The whole year I was just telling myself I’ll have to come through at some point because there’s fouls, injuries. I just kept telling myself that it would come.”

It has been a trying three seasons for Fruendt. He was one of Illinois’ top high school players from his sophomore year to when he graduated from Batavia High School. He was a multiple all-state selection and had plenty of schools after him when he chose Northwestern.

Expectations were high for Fruendt coming in, but he seldom got into games as a freshman and has played sparingly off the bench the last two seasons.

“The first year was real hard, but I’ve come to realize that I have to give it absolutely all I have, and there’s more to life than basketball,” Fruendt said. “As long as I try my best, I tell myself eventually good things will come of it. I haven’t accepted sitting on the bench. I want to play. I just want to help the team however I can.”

Fruendt’s contributions have often come on the scout team. He’s one of Northwestern’s best shooters and has been known to give the Wildcats’ first-team defense fits.

To be the same type of shooter in the game is different, though.

“Some guys shoot when the lights aren’t on,” Carmody said. “For him to come through like that [today], it’s not easy to do.

“I told Nick it was a tremendous performance because he knew and everyone knew if he didn’t play well in the first half he probably wouldn’t be going back in there. I would probably go with someone else. That was added pressure. He was cool out there.”

Fruendt’s biggest shot came in one of the game’s biggest moments. Northwestern had just taken a one-point lead on Minnesota in the second half and had a chance to build on it. Michael Thompson drove the lane and kicked it out to a wide-open Fruendt on the left side. This time, he didn’t hesitate and calmly drained the 3-pointer to put the Wildcats ahead 48-44.

“It was right by our bench,” Fruendt said. “‘Let’s go.’ It was in the middle of a big run. That was awesome. That was an awesome moment.”

It was a shot that brought a smile upon Fruendt’s face and everyone else’s who know him.

“He stepped up and played amazing today,” Northwestern junior John Shurna said. “That’s the sign of what a great player and great teammate he is.”

His former Illinois Wolves club coach Mike Mullins watched back in the Chicago area and knew how big a day it was for Fruendt.

“Nick had faced a lot of challenges at NU,” Mullins said. “He has never faltered in his desire to excel on the court as much as he has off it. He earned all of the success today.”