Analysis: Euphoria in Evanston after ‘Cats shock Purdue

By Brendan Preisman

What were people in New York City feeling after David Tyree’s helmet catch? What were people in Cleveland feeling after LeBron James’s chasedown block?  What were people in Chicago feeling after the Cubs finally broke their century-long World Series drought? 

Whatever they were feeling, it’s probably comparable to the euphoria rushing through Evanston Sunday afternoon. 

David beats Goliath. The U.S. hockey team stuns the Soviet Union. Rocky Balboa somehow knocks out Apollo Creed (in Rocky 2, not Rocky 1) – there’s no underdog metaphor too potent to describe this situation.

Prior to Sunday, Northwestern was 0-18 against teams ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll.  The Wildcats were 0-11 against the Boilermakers in their last 11 tries. 

The two teams appeared to be heading in opposite directions prior to this year. Northwestern hasn’t had a winning season since 2017-18, a stretch during which Purdue has had four seasons with 20 or more wins.

And yet, when the teams stepped onto the court at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Sunday, none of that history mattered. The fact that Zach Edey will likely win the Naismith Award didn’t matter. The brackets projecting Purdue as the first overall seed in March Madness didn’t matter. Purdue’s 23-2 record absolutely didn’t matter. 

The only thing that mattered was whether or not Northwestern could give the Boilermakers the same fight it gave Auburn, Michigan State, or Indiana. As long as it could give Purdue a fight, its March Madness hopes would likely be safe.

Well, the Wildcats gave Purdue more than a fight. They gave Purdue an all-out brawl. 

The fact that Purdue was only up seven at halftime should have struck fear into the hearts of Boilermaker fans everywhere. Northwestern had done almost nothing offensively. It was 1-9 from three-point land, just 3-4 from the free throw line, and had as many turnovers as assists.

Purdue should have been rolling, especially with a trifecta of three pointers from Mason Gillis. But the Boilermakers also scored just five points in the final seven minutes of the first half. Northwestern’s 20th-ranked scoring defense (allowing just 61.9 points per game) was doing its job well, and would continue to do so in the second half.

The David and Goliath metaphor is fitting given that Purdue’s engine is Edey – the 7-foot-4 behemoth who has been almost unstoppable this season. After a quiet first half, Edey picked it up in the second frame, scoring eight of Purdue’s first 10 points.

When Goliath is swinging his sword, most are tempted to run the other way, but not Northwestern’s backcourt. Chase Audige — scoreless in the first half — reminded everyone why he’s one half of the only duo in the Big Ten averaging over 15 points a contest, draining some key jumpers to keep Northwestern afloat during Edey’s scoring outburst.

When was the first time anyone believed David could actually defeat Goliath? When he first volunteered to fight? When he walked out alone? When he finally collected the fatal stone?

For the Wildcats, the moment of belief may have been after some Buie free throws with just under 10 minutes to go. Purdue tried to get the ball across half court through a fierce Northwestern press.

They could not.

At the time, the score was 49-45 Purdue. The Boilermakers would score just nine more points to close the game out. Northwestern turned its already scrappy defense up another notch, making life miserable for Edey and displaying spectacular perimeter defense on the hardwood.

Edey did all he could to carry the Boilermakers. A pair of nice hook shots pushed the lead to eight points with under four minutes to go, and Northwestern could have easily folded there.

They did not.

This was roughly the point where Chase Audige decided to take control.  The senior nailed a three, caused a turnover which led to a dunk, and hit a jump shot to cut into the deficit. 

Then, after two Brooks Barnhizer free throws and the ‘Cats down 57-56, Audige found himself wide open in the right corner. The right corner has a history of clutch shots. Iverson over Lue, Allen over the Spurs, the list could go on and on.

Add Audige over Gillis to the list.

Welsh-Ryan Arena probably set a venue record with how loud it got. Northwestern led Purdue. On Purdue’s ensuing possession, Edey was doubled, and threw a weak lob out to the perimeter. Audige gobbled it up, then tossed it to Ty Berry, who found Barnhizer for the sealing layup.

37 seconds later…

“The improbable season has taken an impossible turn!” Dave Revsine screamed into his microphone as an all-black crowd stormed the court in front of him. But it wasn’t so improbable. A team built on guard play and defense used those two things to play the game its way, and it resulted in a win.

Purdue didn’t hit a shot from the field in the final four minutes. They committed five turnovers in the final three minutes. Audige and Buie scored 28 of the Wildcats’ 34 second half points, and four of the other points were free throws. 

Perhaps the most crucial stat: Zach Edey played all 20 minutes of the second half. He grabbed just two rebounds and committed five turnovers. Northwestern got right up in the Boilermakers’ faces all game long, and in the closing minutes of the second half, Purdue finally blinked. 

96 AP voters were smart enough to recognize what this game meant and give Northwestern their votes. More will come over the next few weeks. All this game did is showed the country that the Northwestern Wildcats can hang with — and potentially even beat — any team in the country.  March Madness, look out.

The Wildcats are on the prowl. 

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