In front of a packed house in the last game at the current iteration of Welsh-Ryan Arena, Northwestern (21-10, 10-8 Big Ten) came up just short by a score of 69-65 against the Big Ten champion Purdue Boilermakers (25-6, 14-4 Big Ten).
With CBS broadcasting the game to a national audience for the first time in Northwestern history, the energy was contagious for much of the game. In Welsh-Ryan’s last game for two years, it lived up to the billing.
“There’s no way there’s ever been a crowd in there like that until today,” head coach Chris Collins said. “Hopefully it becomes the norm. I don’t want that to be just one time. … There’s no reason we can’t have that.”
Early on, the two teams traded blows, firing from all parts of the court. The Boilermakers did so slightly more efficiently, shooting as high as 84% from the field on shots that included uncontested looks from Vince Edwards and P.J. Thompson. The Wildcats were able to keep pace, however, with offensive rebounds from their frontcourt. In fact, eight of their first 10 points came off second chances.
Northwestern also dominated the paint for much of the first half. Eight of the Wildcats’ first 10 points came on second-chance points, and Dererk Pardon outmanned 7-foot-2 Purdue big man Isaac Haas plenty of times.
After some hot shooting fueled a good start for Northwestern, Purdue went on an 11-0 run capped of by a Caleb Swanigan three to take a 23-21 lead. But Bryant McIntosh’s brilliance—he finished with 25 points—combined with a 1-for-7 shooting drought from Purdue made it a 37-37 tie at halftime.
A relatively uneventful start to the second half heated up when Swanigan tacked on his third foul of the game at about the 17-minute mark, resulting in an immediate Isaac Haas substitution.
McIntosh, who finished the first half with 13 points, got his first of the second half on a jumper from the left wing at the 16:23 mark to give the ‘Cats a 42-41 lead. Purdue responded with remarkable efficiency by going on a 6-0 run in just over one minute, and it looked as if Purdue was going to put it away as Edwards started a ridiculous sequence that eventually looked like this: dunk, layup, jumper, layup, FT, layup, layup, FT, FT, layup, layup, layup.
Northwestern similarly pounded the paint via McIntosh assisting and scoring inside, and was able to stay within striking distance. However, it was the vicious interior attack from the Boilermakers that allowed them to pull away slowly and build a 59-50 lead, capped off by a Swanigan dunk to silence Welsh-Ryan Arena. Where Northwestern owned the interior in the first half, in the second it was all Purdue, leading Northwestern in points in the paint 34-24 with 7:00 left.
The Wildcats responded with layups on back-to-back layups, Dererk Pardon jumper and free throw to cap off a 9-1 Wildcat run to pull within one with 3:10 left.
A Swanigan dunk with 7:01 left and jumper with 1:16 left bookended a drought with no field goals for the Boilermakers, but they were able to keep pace with Northwestern with free throws down the stretch by Swanigan and Edwards.
The last few minutes made for the third straight Wildcat basketball game that came down to the wire. With the Boilermakers leading 66-61 with a little over a minute left, Dererk Pardon posted up Swanigan and came away with an Abdul-Jabbar-esque stepback hook to cut the lead to three.
“He’s the best player in the league,” Collins said about Swanigan. “He might be the National Player of the Year for a reason. I admire that kid.”
On the next possession it was Pardon vs Swanigan again, and good defense by Northwestern’s big man saw his black-and-gold-clad counterpart miss a floater in the paint. The ensuing rebound and kick-out by Edwards found nothing but air and sailed out of bounds, giving the ball back to the Wildcats.
Amid battling chants from both fanbases, Northwestern got the ball in with 30 seconds left. Perfect offensive execution led to a wide open Nathan Taphorn look from beyond the arc on the right wing that was, much to the disbelief of anyone in purple, airballed.
“We got him a pretty good look,” McIntosh said. “After making one of the greatest plays in Northwestern history, I’m sure the highs and lows are tough right now.”
While the game certainly wasn’t over with 13 seconds left, it seemed as though the air was let out of Welsh-Ryan with that miss. Vic Law fouled Dakota Mathias on the rebound, and Mathias split his free throws. His miss was only the second Boilermaker miss from the charity stripe on the day (17-19 FT).
Bryant McIntosh got down the floor in a hurry on the next possession and hit a tricky floater from the right baseline to make it a two-point ballgame with five seconds left. The intentional foul came in a hurry against Edwards, who made both of his free throws to ice the game, 69-65.
Next up for both teams is the Big Ten Tournament. Purdue has the #1 seed, and will play its first game on Friday against the winner of the game between Northwestern, the tournament’s 6-seed, and the winner of the #11-#14 matchup. Northwestern tips off on Thursday at 8:00p.m. on ESPN2.
After the senior day festivities honoring Taphorn and an emotional Sanjay Lumpkin, who scored 13 points, Lumpkin reflected on Northwestern’s place in history.
“We all came to this school to play in games that matter in March,” Lumpkin said. “I came to this school to be part of history.”
NCAA Tournament Selection Sunday is a week from today.