By Harrison Larner
A miracle heave. A score forgotten. A goaltend missed. Northwestern men’s basketball’s first ever NCAA tournament appearance embodied the Madness of March in a way only the Cardiac ‘Cats could. But most of all, it was a long time coming.
For 78 years, the men’s basketball squad had been held out of the Big Dance. The 2016-2017 team came into the season with modest expectations and blew them out of the water in a way Northwestern sports rarely do. Not only did the Wildcats make the tournament, but they won a game and took No. 1 seed Gonzaga to the wire before a controversial ending put a period on their magical run. With this year’s edition of March Madness shut down, WNUR sports takes a look at one of the greatest seasons in NU sports history.
2017 NCAA Basketball tournament. Round of 32. 10 seconds left. Northwestern down one. Bryant McIntosh drives middle and flicks the ball over his head to Dererk Pardon on the left block. Five seconds. Pardon goes up for the slam. Standing nearly out of bounds, Zach Collins flies from underneath the hoop – and thrusts both of his hands through the hoop to block Pardon’s dunk. An obvious goaltend. The crowd is shocked the refs could have missed this blatant infraction. The clock hits zero and Gonzaga robs Northwestern 63-62.
That’s how I remember Northwestern being eliminated from their first March Madness appearance. It’s how I suspect many of you remember the loss too. A robbery. A Zach Collins bamboozle.
Here’s the thing. There was five minutes on the clock. Northwestern was down five, not one. Zach Collins barely slid his hand through the rim and the refs had a bad angle to see it. Chris Collins exploded to get a technical as the momentum shifted firmly in favor in Gonzaga’s direction. It was a miracle they were even in a place to win, having been down 22 in the first half to the eventual National Championship runner-ups.
As I mentioned in part two, Northwestern was awarded the No. 8 seed in the West region. But before matching up with No. 1 Gonzaga, it had to get past No. 9 Vanderbilt. With a 12-13 record in Mid-February, the Commodores would not be confused with a powerhouse. On the other hand, many Wildcat fans recognized they were just happy to be there. Others, like then-Sophomore Amit Mallik, thought “hey, we can win our first round game… let’s see what happens.”
Historically, 9 vs. 8 seed matchups are a toss up — through 2019, nine seeds have just a 72-68 edge. McIntosh starred for the Wildcats, but Vanderbilt was not exactly devoid of star talent either. Forward Luke Kornet would be a future NBA starter. Guard Matthew Fisher-Davis averaged nearly 14 points per game.
The ‘Cats started out hot. With 9:45 left in the first half, McIntosh drills a left corner three to take a seven point lead. They stayed hot to take a 34-27 at halftime.
An 18-6 run mid-way through the second half put Vanderbilt back in it. A Jeff Roberson layup then a Riley LeChance finish completed the comeback as Vanderbilt led 66-65 with 17 seconds left.
Matthew Fisher-Davis thought they were still down.
A miracle heave may have sent the Wildcats to the tournament, but a score forgotten keeps them alive. McIntosh nails two free throws to seal a 68-66 win.
If Vanderbilt was a roadblock on the way to a national title, Gonzaga was Kilimanjaro. The No. 1 seed Bulldogs were 33-1 coming into the matchup. Point Guard Nigel Williams-Goss was a consensus second team All American. Zach Collins and Rui Hachimura were future NBA lottery picks. 7-1, 288 pound senior Przemek Karnowski patrolled the paint.
Predictably, the beginning of the game was a disaster for Northwestern. Gonzaga led 34-12 with 2:31 left in the first half. 56-39 with 12:08 left in the 2nd half.
But just as Vanderbilt made a roaring comeback, so did the Wildcats. Vic Law splashes a three. Nathan Taphorn gets two of his own. Law throws down a putback dunk… 63-58.
You know what happens next:
It was a blown call. The Refs admitted it. There’s no getting around that.
What we can get around though, is that the “block” alone cost Northwestern the game.
As Malik notes, “The mathematical odds of winning that game are not high if you consider you still have to play five minutes [versus a No. 1 seed]”
WNUR Sports’ former Sports Director Parker Johnson shifted the blame elsewhere. He said, “I think the loss was all Chris Collins’ fault. Refs are going to make bad calls. It happens every game. And the fact that Collins got a technical arguing the goaltend was the biggest mistake of the whole thing.”
Nevertheless, many fans still fixated on that one point. A Zach Collins banner hung from the Weber arch.
The fans were upset, and maybe rightfully so. But the fans were put in a spot they had never been before. Northwestern was the Cinderella story of the season, the dark horse to steal a playoff berth that no one expected at season’s start. The fans were upset, but finally they danced and experienced every emotion that comes with it.
Now as the 2020 season (hopefully) approaches, the Wildcats again carry no expectations. But they have been counted out before.
Editor’s Note: This is part three of a three part series taking a look back at a legendary moment for Chicago’s Big Ten Team. Click here for part one and part two . Harrison Larner is a guest of WNUR Sports and is the founder and host of the Slice of Sports podcast.