Full story of North Park’s loss to Carroll goes beyond the scoreboard

North Park men's basketball
The scoreboard after North Park's Jan. 15 game versus Carroll, with national championship banners displayed on the left

Vikings valiant second-half effort was first step in series of strong performances

By Spencer Poole
Medill Reports

The North Park University men’s basketball team wasn’t able to overcome an early deficit against Carroll University of Waukesha on Jan. 15, losing 76-59. But the 37-30 North Park run in the second half should be remembered. With a team diminished by COVID-19 and including some players who have rarely seen the court this season, the Vikings were able to go toe-to-toe with a healthy Carroll squad and deliver some much-needed momentum despite the loss.

A change in positive mindset led to a high quality of performance that they hope continues through the coming weeks, though the team’s standing remains stagnant for now.

Down four starters due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols, the Vikings had to rely on many of their backups throughout the game, with an astounding seven players setting a season-high in minutes played.

“Many of us on the court hadn’t had much previous experience playing with each other,” said Adam Sundh, a guard from Stockholm, Sweden. “We needed some time to catch up and synchronize our play.”

And that inexperience showed early in the game. Carroll went on a couple of strong runs in the first half, culminating with a seven-minute stretch during which they outscored North Park 19-2 as the Vikings struggled to find their footing. They jogged back to the locker room at halftime down 18.

It was there that head coach Tom Slyder gave the team some wise words.

“Coach told us that despite the hole we had dug ourselves in, that we shouldn’t play the scoreboard but continue to play hard and grind the game out,” said forward Adam Bulwa from Glenview. “I made sure that I didn’t let the scoreboard dictate how I played and continued to play hard.”

Bulwa went on to be the focal point of the Vikings’ strong second-half run, playing what has to be considered his best game in a North Park uniform. He scored a career-high 14 points and added six combined steals and blocks with highlights including back-to-back and-ones, multiple big-time blocks and an emphatic slam off a nice pass from starting point guard Michael Osborne.

Osborne helped lead the second-half charge with Bulwa. He scored nine points after halftime, including a dazzling bucket with seven minutes remaining where he dribbled around two defenders in traffic and knocked down a tough fall-away through contact. Osborne and Bulwa had great chemistry in the pick-and-roll as well and, combined, scored 21 of the team’s 37 second-half points.

“What clicked between me and Mike was that we wanted to defend our home court even if our team wasn’t at full strength,” said Bulwa about his chemistry with Osborne. “We made sure to attack the second half with a different mindset than we had entered the game with.”

This change in mindset, along with the return of some key players, helped the Vikings to a couple of quality performances in the following week. A Wednesday night loss against heavily favored No. 3 Illinois Wesleyan surprisingly went down to the wire, with Bulwa and Osborne both playing a pivotal role. They followed that up with a win over nonconference opponent Benedictine University, their first since a Jan. 2 victory at Eureka College.

Even with the improvement in form, the Vikings haven’t been able to translate that improvement to the conference standings. They’ve slipped to seventh in the CCIW at 3-4, ahead of only two teams. Particularly biting is the fact that Carroll University has not won a single game in the conference besides its victory over North Park.

“While it most certainly was fun to be able to play some more minutes during the game, it was an unfortunate scenario, losing so many of our players who could have contributed to a much-needed victory during our season,” Sundh said. “I feel like I could have performed better … but overall, it was a good learning experience that will only make us better in the long run.”

If the Vikings want to make a run to the national tournament, they need to start stringing together some conference wins. And with the rest of their schedule coming against conference opponents, they’ll have plenty of opportunities.

Spencer Poole is a sports reporter at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @spencp99.