MADISON, WI — With six seconds left on the clock and the scoreboard reading “Northwestern 64, Wisconsin 56,” Wildcats fifth-year Senior Sanjay Lumpkin scooped up a bouncing ball on the large red “W” logo at mid-court and saw nothing but daylight in front of him. The red-clad crowd at the Kohl Center let out a preemptive groan that subsided into silence just before Lumpkin loped down the floor and punched through an emphatic slam. The score read 66-56. There were only four seconds left. They had actually done it. It was really over. They had beaten the Big Ten’s standard-bearers in their own backyard.
Of course, for Lumpkin, he had been a part of many upset wins before. In his freshman year, he was part of a Chris Collins squad that won in this same arena against this same program. However, it was the nature in which he spiked the ball through the hoop, and the ferocity of the emotion in his yell that filled the arena as he did so, that made it apparent that this was something entirely different. This was something momentous.
The man who donned the hero’s cape for Northwestern on the night — junior point guard Bryant McIntosh — conveyed a similar sentiment sitting behind the podium in full uniform at the post-game press conference.
“To see that punctuation and to see [Sanjay throw in that dunk] was just... It was just like...”
Lumpkin’s fellow co-captain attempted to articulate his feelings during that moment that he later called “the dagger”, but his words gave way to sheepish smiles and arm-gestures that implied the self-explanatory nature of what he was trying to say. That was more than enough to do both his and the team’s emotions as a whole justice.
With every smile and every shrug, you could see McIntosh’s dawning recognition of what his team had just done, and what odds they had just overcome. They had knocked off the Big Ten’s best team — the only Top 10 team in the conference — and had done so without their leading scorer, in a sold-out 17,000-seat arena where the home team had not lost in its last 19 attempts. Not only was this the best conference win that Northwestern could have picked up all season, but it was best conference win that anyone in the Big Ten could have, and will, pick up.
In a campaign where the Wildcats are better positioned than ever this late on to end their eternal NCAA Tournament dry spell, and at a particular point where it was looking like the foundation of that favorable position may completely fall apart, this team delivered more than just a win to right the ship; They accomplished the defining moment of the program-defining season for Northwestern Men’s Basketball.
After Tuesday’s loss at home to the 14-11 Illinois Fighting Illini, all the standard pre-conditions for the Wildcats annual downward spiral appeared to be in place. With Scottie Lindsey sidelined due to illness, they had utterly wilted in the face of a chance to put a necessary headlining win on their Tournament résumé against Purdue, and had compounded matters by succumbing to a crippling loss against a Big Ten bottom dweller later that week. Their offense seemed broken and stagnant, their defense entirely discombobulated, and their bench sorely depleted. Without an ostensible answer to their problems in sight and with Lindsey far from a return, they headed into the hunting ground of what many were calling the Big Ten’s only elite team. As the double-digit spread suggested, an straightforward win for the hosts was the M.O.
Yet the Wildcats found a way.
Their team defense, keyed by expertly-timed double teams on Wisconsin’s star big Ethan Happ and flawless perimeter rotations, was better than its been all year. McIntosh played all 40 minutes, bore the entire offensive burden on his two shoulders, and dropped in timely bucket after timely bucket on a dizzying array of floaters, pull-up jumpers, layups through contact and long range bombs that seemingly touched the heavens before hitting nothing but nylon. Dererk Pardon, Nate Taphorn, Isiah Brown, and Lumpkin all played off of McIntosh and found ways to make decisive impacts on both ends of the floor. Vic Law was everywhere on the perimeter defensively, working tirelessly for virtually all 40 minutes as well. The Wildcats owned the paint on both ends, and down the stretch hit the free throws, made the stops, and grabbed the rebounds necessary to see out a victory.
It was the most crystal clear display of this program’s maturation, transformation, and newfound confidence, and Coach Collins echoed this sentiment post-game.
“We’ve learned and evolved as a team,” he said. “We are trying to build a program to emulate what Wisconsin has done, and tonight showed that we’re at that level of having guys that fight for each other and believe in something bigger than themselves. I just saw confident looks the whole night, and because of what we’ve built, I was confident the whole time that we were going to win the game.”
Sunday not only proved this year’s Wildcats to be a Tournament-caliber team, but could potentially be looked back on years from now as one that rubber-stamped Northwestern’s status as a Tournament-caliber program.
Now with six rounds remaining in Collins’ 18-round boxing match, the Wildcats can move forward with some breathing room, confidence, and — perhaps most importantly — the return of Lindsey beckoning. With the most quality of quality wins under their belt, Northwestern can now reasonably be expected to book their ticket, regardless of what happens in the Big Ten tournament, by splitting the remainder of their regular season games and reaching the 22-win plateau. With three very winnable games against Rutgers, Illinois (away), and Michigan as part of that set, the relief provided by Sunday’s win cannot be overstated.
Recency bias claims have no validity here. When taking into account both its wider and narrower implications, what happened at the Kohl Center was to this point the biggest win in program history. Hands down.