Northwestern basketball’s greatest night, and all the pain it washed away

1:53 | College Basketball
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Thursday March 2nd, 2017

This article originally appeared on FOXSports.com.

EVANSTON, Ill. — At just before 8 p.m. central, on March 1, 2017, Northwestern effectively clinched the first NCAA tournament berth in school history on a layup off a full-court pass with no time remaining.

Seriously.

During a timeout with 1.7 seconds remaining, in a game tied 65–65, Northwestern assistant Brian James drew up a Christian Laettner-against-Kentucky-esque play. Nate Taphorn threw a football-style Hail Mary from under his own basket clear to the other side of the court. Dererk Pardon got ahead of the last Michigan defender, caught it just a few feet from the basket, laid it off the backboard and in.

The Northwestern bench emptied in pandemonium. The students streamed on to the court.

All of this happened right in front of my eyes, in an arena near and dear to my heart, on a night I’d circled weeks earlier in the event of just this very thing happening.

And all I could think to tweet was a mild profanity.

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*****

I came on a whim.

A little over two weeks ago, after my alma mater Northwestern went on the road and upset a top 10 Wisconsin team, I thought to myself … man. I think they’re actually going to do this.

I looked at the remaining schedule and pinpointed a March 1 home game against Michigan as potentially the night the Wildcats might wrap up that Thing We Don’t Speak Of. I convinced my editors to send me. I booked a flight from San Jose to Chicago.

Northwestern promptly lost three of its next four. Some of my pessimistic alumni friends began panicking. They asked me if Northwestern would still make it if it didn’t win another game. I said that’d be dangerous.

But hey—just one more win will do it. Any one will do.

On Tuesday night, I arrived in Evanston. People told me it’s been an unusually mild winter here. I landed to cold and heavy rain.

Bad omen?

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Upon checking into my downtown hotel, I noticed a sign for a Northwestern basketball “meeting” that night. Apparently this was where the team stays the night before the game. I got on an elevator, it stopped on the second floor and in walked … head coach Chris Collins.

Good omen?

On Wednesday, I visited with a few people (including football coach Pat Fitzgerald) before heading over to Welsh-Ryan Arena several hours early. The 35-year-old eyesore of a building—which will be torn up beginning next week—smelled exactly the same as it did when I was a student in the mid-‘90s.

Mostly like popcorn. Or, as my friend Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune puts it, “like dreams unfulfilled.”

I sat there in the near-empty arena and thought about all those nights here in college covering teams that went 7–20 and 7–22. The football team had just made its Cinderella run to the Rose Bowl. They did it with an 85-man roster. My friends and I wondered, how hard can it be to recruit five decent basketball players?

And we kept wondering it for another 20 years.

Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

But on the scale of Northwestern basketball suffering, my 40-year-old buddies actually had it relatively easy. Before the game, I wandered around interviewing fans that looked like maybe they’d been coming here for a lot longer.

I met Steve Wilson, class of 1970 and major donor to the program. He’s been coming to these games for 51 years. Imagine following a basketball team for 51 years that’s barely even played in the NIT. “I bleed purple,” he said.

I met Tom and Mary Spiering, who drive 60 miles from Union Grove, Wis., for every home game. They are not alums themselves but got hooked when their daughters went to school here. “I’ve been nervous all day,” Tom lamented. “Just keep hoping. You can shoot me dead, but, just let them win.”

And I met Jon Newcomb, class of ’79, who told me lately the wait between games had become agonizing. “I pull up every bracketology column I can find and try to convince myself I can make it to game time.”

I asked him what he thought that moment would be like come Selection Sunday if in fact Northwestern’s name finally flashes on the screen.

“Well, I’m going to say ‘When’ … when it happens,” he said. “It’s going to be one of the great moments of my life, right up there with the day I married my wife, the birth of my children and Michigan beating Ohio State [in 1995] to send us to the Rose Bowl.”

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This was about 10 minutes before tipoff. I looked up and suddenly noticed—whoa. This place is packed.

In my day, there were games when I was covering the team for the student paper that I was the only student I knew there. On Wednesday, the first students ran to their seats as soon as the doors opened. One, Jake Schaefer, a senior from Chicago, had his face painted purple while wearing a Phantom of the Opera hat. An entire row of students behind one basket had their shirts off and chests painted with purple letters. (I never did figure out what they were trying to spell.)

Tickets were going for $160 on StubHub. For a Northwestern basketball game. There was a time when you probably could have bought a season ticket for less.

It was all so … surreal.

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*****

The game tipped off. It was close throughout. It was exciting. There were some strange officiating moments which I won’t bore you with here. All you really need to know is this.

In its entire history, Northwestern had never won a basketball game of this magnitude in any form, much less on a ridiculously impossible play it had never even practiced.

I’m stunned that it happened. I’m even more stunned I was here to see it.

Mind you, the Wildcats didn’t officially clinch anything Wednesday night. But as someone who mocks brackets for a living, trust me when I tell you, Northwestern—21–9, 10–7 in the Big Ten and now with four RPI Top 50 victories—is going to the NCAA tournament.

Nam Y. Huh/AP

I suppose it’s fitting that to finally get to March Madness, Northwestern had to make a contribution of its own.

“When you’re trying to do things that are really hard,” an emotional Collins said afterward, “it takes exceptional things sometimes.”

“I don’t think any Northwestern team has ever played in a game as big as this, that meant everything,” said junior forward Vic Law. “… We knew coming in, if we wanted to be different, then this was the game we needed to take.”

And that’s the thing. Until it happens, you can’t picture just how different something that’s never happened before will feel.

I find myself thinking of some of the amazing endings I’ve covered involving other schools—most recently Clemson’s last-second national championship win over Alabama. What must it be like for those fans? Even if they were confident going in, surely it must seem almost incomprehensible in the immediate aftermath.

But this was not that. For one thing, it wasn’t for a national championship. Not even close. But also, I assume fans of teams that win national championships are used to seeing their school win dramatic games.

Northwestern alums are conditioned to decades of watching the other team win dramatic games on their own home floor.

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In fact, the last game I attended here prior to this one was also against Michigan, in 2012, with Bill Carmody’s team that year considered to be sort-of on the bubble. Seemingly all his teams were sort-of on the bubble—but they never got off it, because they never won games like this. They lost that 2012 game in overtime.

And yet … I really did think right up to the end that this team was going to win. From the moment I stepped into that arena Wednesday, everything but the smell in the air seemed different. Different vibe. Different players. Different set of fans.

Most of all, just a better team.

“They kept saying [in the huddle], ‘We’re not losing tonight,’” said Collins. … “To be able to finish the game that way, it’s fitting.”

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*****

As I stood there watching the postgame celebration unfold, waiting for the crowd to thin out a little before heading to the press conferences, Newcomb, the aforementioned 1979 alum, came right up to me on press row.

“It was better!” he shouted. “It was better!”

Even better than the all-time great life highlight he’d imagined.

As for the moment he and every other long-suffering purple faithful has been waiting for—that comes a week from Sunday. It’s a moment my friends and I used to joke about in our dorm room 20-something years ago because it seemed like such an unattainable fantasy.

At some point, the name of a certain school will come on the screen, and Greg Gumbel will say it: “Northwestern.” There will be a seed. There will be a location. There will be an opponent.

Yes, it’s really happening. I wouldn’t believe it, except I saw it with my own eyes.

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