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Facing the unfathomable, Northwestern finds a way to remember and to win

The Northwestern women beat Indiana 80-67 in an unforgettable game.

Somehow, there was a basketball game.

Amber Jamison took a three-point shot, and it fell through the basket. The scoreboard ticked over to 47-42 Northwestern. The fans roared with approval. Nothing seemed out of order.

Of course, nothing could be in order. Five days ago, in the immediate aftermath of the death of Jordan Hankins, the thought of playing this game against Indiana was patently absurd. And yet, in an impossibly difficult situation, Northwestern was still able to play for Hankins, and for that we should be both immeasurably thankful and astounded at the strength of 14 young women.

“We knew how much Jordan loved the game and we were playing for her,” senior captain Christen Inman said. “Our decision to go out on the court was really just about making her proud and knowing that she’s watching us today. We played well for her. We won this game for her.”

For Amber Jamison, Jordan Hankins’ closest friend on the team, the weight of the last few days must have been incalculable. She asked head coach Joe McKeown to play the whole game with Hankins’ last name and number on her jersey, as a more personal tribute. Her teammates and her coaches, also dealing with an unfathomable loss, followed suit with Hankins’ number five emblazoned on their warmup shirts.

For the packed student sections, the Northwestern community, and anyone who had been touched by the irrepressible spirit of Jordan Hankins, it’s almost impossible to process. That near-impossibility didn’t stop anyone from trying. It rarely does, in times like these.

“She was just this big smile,” McKeown said, when asked to share some memories of the sophomore guard. “Just this personality; everybody loved her. (Men’s head coach) Chris Collins was always laughing because she always had music up loud, shooting just behind his office. She just liked to shoot. We’d call a play, she’d just look at me and shoot it... Those are things, the fun things. She was just a special young lady. “

The three senior captains highlighted her energy and smile as well:

“Her smile...she just lit up a room,” Inman said. “Every day at practice no matter what she just had this big smile.”

Remembrance also echoed from the student sections, with the solid block of over 300 white T-shirt-clad students. I’ve never seen these student numbers for a Northwestern women’s basketball game. The entire men’s basketball team was there. Friends, former teammates, coaches and other Northwestern family members crowded the stands. As remembrance swirled through the air and Welsh-Ryan honored Hankins in her moment of silence, you could feel the grief of a community, and the pain of what had brought it together.

But this was not solely a moment of mourning — it was also a moment of release for Northwestern, as a community and as a team. Remembrance concentrated in every shot, in every rebound, in the unbridled energy of the crowd. McKeown credited the crowd for “at least 10 points”. Northwestern didn’t play perfectly, but it still handily beat an Indiana team that came out to win.

It should be noted that some basketball things happened that defy explanation. Make of them what you will. Jamison, wearing number five, as mentioned, took one contested three-pointer from the left corner, one of Hankins’ signature spots on the floor. Nothing but net. Jamison, a 50 percent free throw shooter in 2015-16, made all eight of her free throws down the stretch. There was no doubt. Hankins never missed a key free throw, and there was no way that her friend could miss now, in this moment. Jamison totaled 13 points in 17 minutes.

“It took great courage for our team to play that game,” McKeown said. “I’ve probably coached thousands of Division I teams and it all becomes irrelevant in these situations... Everyone’s just trying do what’s best, and that’s all you can do right now.”

Northwestern played and won a basketball game, not because it needed to play, or because playing basketball or winning arbitrary human competitions really matter in the grand scheme of life, but because it needed to remember and honor the life of Jordan Hankins. For everyone in the Northwestern Athletics family, basketball acted as a brief anchor in the turbulence of life. Sometimes, in the face of great tragedy, that’s all you can manage.

“We’ve been through so much this past week,” Deary said. “It was just release. We overcame this hump that seemed impossible.”

After Jamison’s three went in, Indiana quickly inbounded the ball. Jamison rushed back to cover on defense, as per the script of the game, but nearly three thousand people all understood. The scoresheet reads “Amber Jamison, three-pointer made, 5:03 left in the third quarter”. And yes, that’s what happened. What also happened in that moment and in this game was an expression of release, a moment of remembrance, and an powerful affirmation that Jordan Hankins will exist in the hearts of the Northwestern community forever.

So of course there was a basketball game. How could there not have been a basketball game?