In the upcoming days, we'll be counting down our Top 5 moments in Northwestern sports from the 2015 calendar year. We began with an Olympic athlete, Jordan Wilimovsky, at No. 5. We then travelled back in time to November, and north to Madison, Wis. and the wild finish of Northwestern-Wisconsin.
Today, at No. 3, we go to the N-Club at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Monday night in March.
I've covered a lot of events in my two-plus years at Northwestern. I've covered at least five sports, and countless football and men's basketball games, including one that I described as the craziest game I've ever witnessed in person. But I'll always tell people that one the coolest events, if not the coolest event, that I've covered was Selection Monday.
After a 23-8 season, the Northwestern women's basketball players and coach Joe McKeown were pretty confident of an impending NCAA Tournament bid, the program's first since 1997. Here's how I described that evening in a feature two days later:
The atmosphere inside the N-Club on the second floor of Welsh-Ryan arena was festive. Northwestern women's basketball players, their families, the coaches, and anybody involved with the program, including [athletic director Jim] Phillips and Northwestern president Morton Schapiro, had gathered to celebrate an historic night. Barring something utterly shocking, in less than an hour, the Wildcats would hear their name called on ESPN, and would be heading to the program's first NCAA Tournament since 1997.
The band was also in attendance, and played the fight song. Cheerleaders in full uniform milled about. Purple was everywhere. And so were smiles. There wasn't a single person in that room who wasn't smiling. It was impossible not to.
Another thing that was ubiquitous was pride. All those happy faces also exuded pride. And how could they not? Many of them knew the history. They knew of the dark years, of the losing, of the struggles. They also knew how much this year's team had been through in a matter of a few months, and how much effort they had put in to make a night like this possible.
At around 5:45, the room fell silent to lend its ears to Phillips, who had grabbed the microphone. Minutes earlier, McKeown had spoken, along with his three captains, and they all had nice things to say. There was applause. But when Phillips had the stage, something was different.
In today's world, many public figures like Phillips have become so overtly politically correct, it can at times be robotic. Pat Fitzgerald is that way too. The Fitzgerald you see in front of a camera is a completely different person than Pat Fitzgerald the friend, or Pat Fitzgerald the colleague. Phillips too is often solely concerned with saying the company line.
But on Monday night, Phillips was captivated by the moment. He had his list of thank-yous to say, but he didn't just rattle off names. His sincerity was palpable. He spoke with enthusiasm, with genuine admiration. "I'm telling you," he said as he looked at the young women in front of him. "I'm in awe of you." He was overcome with pride and joy.
For a brief 15 minutes or so after 6 p.m. local time, the smiles and the joy morphed into tension and anxiety. For the players, the wait was excruciating. After the first region was unveiled and ESPN went to commercial, some got up to walk around.
But then the moment came.
It was the moment that everybody in the room had been waiting for. Some, like seniors Alex Cohen and Karly Roser, had been waiting longer than others. But one man, McKeown, had been waiting as long as anybody.
When he rose from his seat and clenched both of his fists, and later when he stood there surveying an empty Welsh-Ryan, it was the culmination of that long process. It was his reward for the faith he showed in the program, in Phillips, in the university, in his players.
If it wasn't already clear, Northwestern women's basketball has arrived. After a long journey that included the occasional detour, it has reached the desired destination.
But McKeown isn't done. He's still building. In the day's leading up to selection Monday, he hit the road for a recruiting trip. So maybe the NCAA Tournament bid isn't the culmination. Maybe it's just the start.
"As great as I feel about where we're at right now," Phillips says, "there's even a better destination I think we can go to under his leadership and the great young women we have in the program."