The fact that Northwestern was playing on the opening day of an NCAA tournament—after missing the dance in each of its previous 77 years of existence—felt surreal. It was such a happening that Wildcats fans outnumbered those of every other team in Salt Lake—including the fanbase of their next opponent, No. 1 Gonzaga—and included former star players (Evan Eschmeyer, Tavares Hardy, Kevin Coble) and arguably the school's most famous basketball-world alum: a non-player, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. That Northwestern not only acted like it belonged but was dominating, taking a 15-point lead over Vandy with 13:42 left in the second half, at 49–34, was surreal.
The stretch of this first-round game that felt thematically in line with the dark history of Northwestern basketball was when the Wildcats let that entire lead slip away. Up-15 turned into up-one with 2:40 left, at 59–58, and a slender Commodores two-guard named Matthew Fisher-Davis was turning into Steph Curry, draining pull-up threes and stealing the stage back from NU junior point guard Bryant McIntosh, who'd been the game's star to that point. And when Vandy point guard Riley LaChance made a driving layup with 18 seconds left, to give the 'Dores a 66–65 lead, it all felt so Northwestern, cursed like so many games in that 77-year drought—like the tourney trip and the double-digit lead had just been a cruel setup for the Wildcats getting stuck with a dagger and put back in their proper place, among the irrelevant.
This was when the purple-tinged crowd at Vivint Arena bore witness to 2017's first Weird NCAA Tournament Moment—the weirdest thing of all being that it benefited, rather than crushed, Northwestern.
The Wildcats had just inbounded the ball following LaChance's layup. McIntosh—who already had 23 points on the biggest stage of his career—says he was just "looking to push the ball up the floor," where coach Chris Collins likely would've looked to get McIntosh isolated for a drive and a shot in the final five seconds. But Fisher-Davis, a junior who was only one, quality defensive possession away from being Vanderbilt's first-round hero, says he glanced at his coach, Bryce Drew, "and I saw [him] point at my man for my matchup."
The matchup was McIntosh, who'd previously been burning LaChance for floaters and pull-ups; Fisher-Davis knew that. But then he did something inexplicable, for a team that already had nine team fouls: He ran at McIntosh, in the backcourt, and fouled him, intentionally, with 14.6 seconds left.
Many in the crowd gasped. Coaches on Vandy's bench looked on in horror. McIntosh was so bewildered, "I thought maybe I made a mistake," he said.
Nope: McIntosh checked the scoreboard. Northwestern really was down by one, and in the double bonus. He was going to the free-throw line for two shots.
Fisher-Davis quickly realized his error -- which happened in the vicinity of the Commodores' bench -- and the gravity of it sunk in as he walked to the opposite free-throw line, to take his rebounding position at the top of right side of the lane. He pounded a palm into his forehead, and looked down in anguish. Lumpkin, also on the lane, turned to the Vandy player next to him, senior guard Nolan Cressler, and asked, "Why did he foul?"
"I have no clue," Cressler told him.
"I still don't know why he fouled," Lumpkin would say later, in the locker room, "but I appreciate it."
McIntosh made both free throws, putting Northwestern up 67–66. It was not over yet; the Wildcats followed it by forcing LaChance to miss a three-point attempt with six seconds left, and then the rebound was knocked out of bounds by the 'Dores with 1.4 seconds on the clock. They fouled Lumpkin before the inbounds pass was even released, and he went to the line, where he made one of two shots.
It was 68–66, 1.4 seconds left, Vandy's ball under Northwestern's basket: still not over. Especially, McIntosh thought as he glanced at the Commodores' bench, not when their coach is freakin' Bryce Drew, an NCAA tournament legend for his buzzer-beater against Ole Miss—on a full-court, catch-and-pitch play called "Pacer" that Valparaiso ran with 2.5 seconds left—in the 1998 tourney. Every Indiana kid—and McIntosh is one, from Greenburg High—knows about the Bryce Drew shot. "When you look over and see him," McIntosh said, "you know the game is not safe yet, that there's some kind of basketball God over there with him."
But Vandy did not receive any divine assistance, nor did Drew even seem to have a play cooked up along the lines of Pacer. The 'Dores' inbounds went to Fisher-Davis, in the backcourt, and the shot he tried to heave from behind the mid-court line didn't even release before the buzzer sounded. Northwestern had escaped with its program's first-ever NCAA tournament win.
Fisher-Davis owned up to his gaffe afterwards. "I just didn't know the score," he admitted, when he saw Drew point at McIntosh. Fisher-Davis said he got confused, mistakenly thought Vandy was still trailing, and fouled. To three different reporters, he reportedly called it a "mistake," a "dumb mistake," and a "dumb-ass play." When asked about the foul in his press conference, Drew said, "It could have been a miscommunication. He looked over at me before. But one play doesn't lose the game for you. … Without [Fisher-Davis], we're not even close to being in that situation at the end."
The Northwestern crowd lingered in the stands after the buzzer, waiting to cheer off each player who'd been held up for post-game interviews on the floor: McIntosh, then junior guard Scottie Lindsey, who'd added 14 points, and sophomore forward Dererk Pardon, a normally mediocre free-throw shooter who'd gone 6-for-6 from the stripe in the second half, and finally, Collins, who'd come to Northwestern in 2013, from an assistant gig at Duke, and dreamed of taking the school that he'd grown up 20 minutes away from to its first NCAA tournament.
That dream had been realized four days earlier, in Evanston, when Northwestern's name was revealed on the 8–9 seed line, against Vanderbilt, at the back end of CBS' Selection Show. They celebrated that night, then got to work Monday morning preparing for the Commodores. Collins had told his team, "When you dream about these games, you don't dream about losing them. You don't dream about playing scared. … You dream about being great, having confidence and winning."
You do not, presumably, dream about winning like that—taking a giant lead in the second half, bursting with confidence, watching that lead disappear, and then taking it back in the final 15 seconds on a gaffe that indicated some team other than Northwestern might be cursed. But this is the NCAA tournament, where anything happens, and you accept wins any way they come. So Collins made his way back to Northwestern's locker room, where his team was waiting, impatiently, to act out one of its new traditions.
They drench Collins with water after big wins, but this being the biggest of all, the Wildcats were double-fisting—cups and water bottles, anything they could grab. Soon after the dousing, Lumpkin queued up the music, and out came the pounding piano line of "Still D.R.E." No one cared that it wasn't a song about a newcomer. They played it because they like to dance to it.
|Gavin Skelly and Bryant McIntosh celebrate during Northwestern's hair-raising victory in the school's first NCAA tournament appearance. Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports|
Northwestern savors its turn as NCAA tournament darling
SALT LAKE CITY -- The Northwestern coaches had done a pretty good job of convincing every player on the team that their trek to Salt Lake City for the NCAA tournament -- the Wildcats' first in the 78-year history of the program -- was a normal road trip.
But then redshirt senior captain Sanjay Lumpkin walked into the locker room before the game and saw the circular blue NCAA patch on his Northwestern uniform.
"It hit me," Lumpkin said.
It hit him that not a single player who had worn a Northwestern jersey had ever played in one with that patch, that no Northwestern player had ever stepped on the NCAA tournament floor and that he was about to become one of the first.
The Wildcats had soaked in their 78-years-in-the-making Cinderella moment on Selection Sunday as they hosted a watch party and passed out T-shirts that read: "It's time." The country had made them March's darling before the tournament had even begun.
But it was their goal to not be a darling, to prove that their rise -- which seemed meteorically fast to no one who had been paying attention, and slow and steady to those who had followed the program since Chris Collins became coach in 2013 -- was going to be sustained.
"It's nice to be invited to the dance," Collins said. "You want to stay a while."
Especially after waiting 78 years.
And for most of the game, it looked as if the Wildcats would extend their road trip.
They led by as many as 15 points in the second half as the offense flowed through junior guard Bryant McIntosh, who caught fire and finished the game with 25 points.
But Vanderbilt caught a fire of its own, knocking down 3-pointers and chipping away at Northwestern's lead. And with 18 seconds to go, Vandy had taken a one-point lead on a Riley LaChance layup, looking to cut Northwestern's trip short.
The Wildcats had been on the losing end of so many games this season when they had led until the very end -- they had led Butler, Notre Dame and Indiana with less than a minute to go before losing to all three -- and it looked as though that scenario would lead to their season exit.
But, as is prone to happen in March, madness happened.
As McIntosh was pushing the ball up the floor after LaChance's layup, he was fouled intentionally by Vanderbilt's Matthew Fisher-Davis.
It was a play so odd that McIntosh thought that maybe he was the one confused, that maybe Northwestern actually had been up by a point, not down one?
The players were so thrown off that Lumpkin asked opposing Vanderbilt players why Fisher-Davis had committed the foul -- not as a taunt but as a legitimate question.
The boneheaded play gave McIntosh a chance to put Northwestern back in the lead and on track to making even more history. He calmly swished the free throws with 14.6 seconds left for a 67-66 lead. After Vanderbilt missed a 3-pointer, Northwestern hit another free throw and its 68-66 win was secure.
And with only two seconds left before that history was officially made, 20 rows up opposite the Northwestern bench, a purple and white Cubs "W" flag began to fly. It's a well-known emblem to any Chicagoan, the flag that flies above Wrigley Field (and in numerous homes) after any Cubs win.
A few months earlier, it had become the symbol of the Chicago Cubs breaking their own 108-year drought. Now Northwestern had joined that club.
Not only had the Wildcats arrived to the dance, but they also had earned a W.
And a chance to wear the NCAA patch one more time.