EVANSTON – When some remember the greatest of runs in NCAA Tournament history, typically it involves a team making a deep run into late March and April. Mostly, it’s when a team advances all the way to the Final Four.
Yet other times it doesn’t have to be the longevity of the time spent in the “March Madness” but rather how significant the moment was to a particular school.
There was never a better example than in 2017, when Northwestern, finally, got their taste of tournament play.
Having never been to an NCAA Tournament in program history, hopes were high for Chris Collins’ team the 2016-2017 season. A majority of the major players were back after winning 20 games the season before, with the hope that the program could snap the dreaded streak.
It was a streaky Big Ten season to start after the Wildcats went 11-2 in the non-conference season. After a win over Penn State, the Wildcats lost at Michigan State and Minnesota, then followed that up with six-striaght conference wins.
The last of which was as 68-55 win over Indiana, which earned Indiana a rare ranking at No. 25 the next week.
Then came a loss at No. 23 Purdue then at home to Illinois before the Wildcats got one of their better regular season wins in program history. Bryant McIntosh’s 25 points helped Northwestern to a stunning 66-59 win over then No. 7 Wisconsin in Madison.
Yet that was followed by three losses in their next four games, as the Wildcats’ tournament hopes started to get a little shaky. Then came March 1, 2017, and arguably the greatest single play in Wildcats’ basketball history.
Tied with Michigan at Welsh-Ryan Arena with two seconds left, Nathan Taphorn completed a length of the court throw to Dererk Pardon. He pulled it down, put the shot up off the glass and in to give Northwestern the victory, setting off a wild celebration on the floor.
It was the 21st win of the season and figuratively clinched a spot in the “Big Dance” for the Wildcats. Two wins in the Big Ten Tournament made hearing their name on Selection Sunday a formality.
On March 12th, in the final bracket that was announced, Northwestern’s name was called as the eighth seed in the West Region, setting off another celebration at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
At last, after playing college basketball since 1904, the Wildcats were going dancing.
When they made it to Salt Lake City, they took advantage of this first-time opportunity and knocked off ninth-seeded Vanderbilt 68-66 in the opener. Bryant McIntosh gave the Wildcats the lead for good with a pair of free throws with 14 seconds left and Northwestern’s defense preserved the game after that.
It was a moment to savor for the program, with the team celebrating with football coach Pat Fitzgerald in the locker room afterwards. It was their first tournament victory and an achievement like no other in Northwestern history.
Second-seed Gonzaga awaited in the second round and they showed their might as they took as 21-point lead early in the second half. Yet the Wildcats didn’t give up and would trim the lead to five with just over five minutes to go on a Vic Law dunk.
On the next possession, however, the referees missed a clear goaltending call, and an irate Collins was issued a technical foul. Momentum shifted, and the Wildcats would never get closer as they’d end up losing 79-73 to end their season.
After the game, the NCAA admitted that a mistake was made on the call, but it was too late to help keep the magical season going.
But what a run it was.
Northwestern hasn’t been dancing since, but most likely will in the future. Yet nothing will ever quite be like the first time in that March of 2017.