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After letting another golden opportunity slip away, the clock is ticking on Northwestern’s tournament dreams

The Wildcats again coughed up a game they should’ve won.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Indiana Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

BLOOMINGTON, IN — Bryant McIntosh thought the shot was good when it left his hands.

“I actually said, ‘I hit it.’ It felt great,” McIntosh said afterwards.

The junior point guard cocked his head to the left as he watched the ball descend towards the hoop. He had just leapt from the halfcourt line in Assembly Hall, hung in the air, and launched what would’ve been a miraculous game-winner at the buzzer.

If it had gone in, the shot would’ve all but punched the ticket to the Wildcats’ first NCAA Tournament. It would’ve gone down as the biggest shot in Northwestern basketball history. The movie would’ve written itself: the face of a program’s transformation ending nearly a century of futility by beating the traditional powerhouse in his home state.

Instead, McIntosh’s shot glanced off the right side of the rim, hit the backboard, and fell harmlessly to the court, offering one final reminder of the basketball gods’ ceaseless disdain for Northwestern in a game full of them.

At least, that’s what it felt like for fans of the hapless Wildcats.

In the end, multiple Indiana rallies and dreadful finishes to both halves by Northwestern led to a wild 63-62 victory for the Hoosiers (16-13, 6-10). The loss was the fifth in seven games for the Wildcats (20-9, 9-7 Big Ten), who probably only need one more win to make the Big Dance but are running out of time to get it.

“It’s a tough one to swallow, especially when you have a five-point lead with a minute to go,” McIntosh said. “It’s a heartbreaking one.”

McIntosh’s prayer falling unanswered lies in stark contrast with the fortuitous bounces that catapulted Indiana to victory. Devonte Green banked in a heave from nearly 70 feet out to close the first half. Then, just before the final attempt, Thomas Bryant’s game-winning free throw clanged off the rim, skied into the air, and fell through.

No, those two shots didn’t cost Northwestern the game. Ceasing to move the ball on offense while allowing Indiana to go on a 22-0 run at the end of the first half, Vic Law losing track of James Blackmon Jr. on Indiana’s penultimate possession and Scottie Lindsey’s terrible half-hearted foul of Bryant did that.

Still, the way those three different shots bounced left countless Wildcats fans wondering what they did to deserve this punishment.

Maybe there’s just something wacky about Northwestern playing close games against teams from the state of Indiana. The manner in which the Wildcats lost, failing to hold onto a late lead, was reminiscent of November defeats against Butler and Notre Dame.

In a season that has seemingly promised it would go where none of its kind had gone before, Chris Collins’ team has been unable to avoid the collapses synonymous with a school whose name is often used as a verb.

This latest act of Northwesterning could prove costly.

Just seven games ago, Northwestern was considered a near-lock for the tournament. The Wildcats were 7-2 and had won six straight games. Since then, they are 2-5 and have just two remaining opportunities to pick up the elusive 10th conference win that would likely cement their status in the field of 68 without the need of a run in the Big Ten Tournament.

On Wednesday in Evanston, Northwestern will take on a Michigan team that has won five of six. Then on Sunday, Welsh-Ryan Arena’s final game before renovations will feature Big Ten-leading Purdue looking for a season sweep of the Wildcats.

Neither contest will be easy. The pressure will be massive. Still, Northwestern isn’t losing hope just yet.

“We still have games to play,” Collins said. “Until they tell us our season’s over, you keep fighting. That’s what we’re going to do.”

“We win and we lose together. We celebrate big wins, you cry together when you have tough losses, and then you pick up the pieces and go to work the next day. We have a great opportunity in front of us.”

It’s now or never for the Wildcats after another chance slipped away on Saturday night.