This historic, unprecedented Northwestern basketball season wasn’t always easy. It was an up-and-down, rollercoaster ride for four months. There were lows. There was adversity. There was panic. And that’s precisely what made the highs that much sweeter. In a season full of euphoric moments, we narrowed the list down to 10 for your reminiscing pleasure.
10) Northwestern routs a ranked Texas team in Brooklyn
By Ian McCafferty
We start way back in November with the fourth game of the year. At the time, many thought that this win would prove to be a defining one in the season. It appeared to show that Northwestern basketball had “arrived” and that the Wildcats could not only compete with other big programs, but win.
At the time, that’s exactly what it did.
Just five days after a heartbreaking last-second loss at Butler, Northwestern made a statement with an easy win over the No. 22 Texas Longhorns at the Barclays Center. Bryant McIntosh had a vintage performance with 20 points and 5 assists as Northwestern led pretty much wire to wire against Shaka Smart’s team in the first round of the Legends Classic.
The only reason this is so low on the list is that as the season progressed, we learned that Texas actually isn’t very good. Despite being ranked when they played Northwestern, the young Longhorns finished as the worst team in the Big 12 with a 11-22 record. What was once a Top-25 win proved to not even be top-150 by the season’s end.
Still, it was one of the better moments of the early stretch of the season and the first point anybody even began to entertain the idea that this might be “The Year.”
9) Northwestern’s six game Big Ten win streak
By Ian McCafferty
We go from the moment the 2016-17 Wildcats first arrived to the moment they proved they were here to stay.
For the second straight year, Northwestern had a very good non-conference record, but that means nothing if you don’t play well in the Big Ten. The Wildcats didn’t exactly create confidence in their first three games, going 1-2, including a home loss to Minnesota.
Then they took advantage of an easier stretch of schedule and caught fire.
Nebraska and Rutgers were the first two victims as Northwestern picked up two more conference road wins. Then the Wildcats finally came home and absolutely blew the doors off of a decent Iowa team, winning by an astounding 35 points. Next came the program’s first win in Columbus since 1977 (more on that later) and Dererk Pardon’s beast-mode, 19-point-22-rebound game against the Huskers. With the winning streak up to five, Northwestern welcomed the Indiana Hoosiers to Welsh-Ryan Arena and ran them off the court. With the 13-point victory, Northwestern had won six straight Big Ten games for the first time in over 70 years. Then when Wildcat fans woke up on Monday morning, they saw a little No. 25 next to their favorite team’s name.
This was the stretch that finally put Northwestern firmly in the national conscious.
8) Bryant McIntosh erupts in the second half to beat Wake Forest
By Isaac Bushnell
Yes, it was a resume-building non-conference win against a tough power-five opponent. Yes, it was massive for a team that had just thrown away close games against Butler and Notre Dame to finally be able to see a similar situation over the line and come out with a victory. And yes, the second 20 minutes of the contest, in which Bryant McIntosh went 8 for 8 and poured in 19 of his game-high 23 points, was a vintage performance for the Wildcats point guard during an early season slump.
However, what defined this game first and foremost in the broader context of this historic season was not the scene on the court, but rather the scene off of it. This was the night where Welsh-Ryan, in its final year of existence, transformed into a fortress unlike it had ever been.
On the Monday night of fall quarter reading week, students packed both ends of the arena to the degree that many were overflowing out into the concourse and had to watch the game standing. Some were die hard basketball fans, some were not. Some were sober, many were not. The atmosphere that resulted was nothing short of insanity. “Ooooo” sounds filled the arena to a deafening degree during every Wake Forest possession, officials were loudly berated for minutes after every whistle they blew against the home team, and Jay Bilas’ son Anthony—a Demon Deacons walk-on—was heckled so relentlessly on the bench that he gave Northwestern fans props on social media after the game.
Most importantly, however, at every important moment throughout the night, the crowd gave the players on the floor additional energy, and that energy was a massive factor in the eventual 65-58 win that has turned out to be one of the most impressive of the year as Wake Forest has surged towards a potential Tournament berth of its own. McIntosh, Sanjay Lumpkin, and Chris Collins all offered unsolicited praise to the atmosphere that the crowd created in the post-game press conference. The crowd that night and the way that the team seemed to intimately feed off of it set the precedent for every unforgettable college basketball atmosphere that accompanied Northwestern home games for the rest of the year.
7) Northwestern holds on against Dayton at the United Center
By Ian McCafferty
It won’t be the first thing that comes to mind when we think back on the 2016-17 Northwestern basketball season, but the game against Dayton at the United Center was unquestionably one of the team’s biggest wins. Not only is Dayton the best win of the season RPI-wise, it was a crucial victory in one of the team’s few non-conference challenges. It proved once again that the Wildcats were contenders and had the talent to defeat perennial tourney participants.
The game itself was insane. The Wildcats rushed out a huge lead, while the Flyers couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. Northwestern led 40-17 and looked as if it was going to coast to an blowout victory against a quality opponent. Then the wheels fell off. Dayton came roaring back, never taking the lead, but cutting it to four with 42 seconds left. It was “classic” Northwestern. Only the Wildcats would be able to blow such a huge lead.
But they didn’t.
Bryant McIntosh hit a huge jumper at the top of the key and Northwestern held on in what was basically a road environment. It set the stage not just for Northwestern’s tournament résumé, but the rest of the season itself.
What many fans will also remember are the antics of head coach Archie Miller’s wife, Morgan Nicole Cruse Miller, both in the stands and on Twitter during the game. Miller tweeted, then later deleted, “All I need to say is my husband has coached his way to an Elite Eight at Dayton. Where has Northwestern gone?!? NO WHERE!!”
Well Mrs. Miller, Northwestern has gone somewhere. You might want to tune in on Selection Sunday.
6) Bryant McIntosh hits a game winner against Rutgers
By Ian McCafferty
This one would be even higher on the list if it didn’t come against the Big Ten’s worst team.
Bryant McIntosh’s pull up three-pointer to defeat Rutgers at Welsh-Ryan Arena wasn’t about the program arriving or the season taking a huge step forwards. It was simply about self-preservation. Northwestern had looked primed for the NCAA Tournament after a six-game winning streak and a ranking in the AP poll, but then the Wildcats lost three of their next four without Scottie Lindsey. While a huge win at Wisconsin managed to stem the anxiety, a loss to the Scarlet Knights would have been devastating to the resume.
Northwestern didn’t have a bad loss all year, but it came just a few minutes away from getting one. With 3:07 left in the game, Northwestern trailed by four and Welsh-Ryan was dead silent. This was Rutgers! You can’t lose to Rutgers! As the time wound down, it really felt like the team was Northwesterning in the most painful of ways.
A minute later, Gavin Skelly hit a clutch three-pointer to bring the Wildcats within one. Then, with 58 seconds left and the shot clock running down, Bryant McIntosh went around a screen, pulled up and sent a sold-out Welsh-Ryan into a frenzy.
Northwestern had held on, and was now just one win away from making the NCAA tournament.
5) Northwestern wins in Columbus for the first time since 1977
By Tristan Jung
Defeating Ohio State is the white whale of Northwestern sports. Sticking it to the Big Ten’s grand powerhouse of college athletics has always been a dream of Northwestern fans. It usually remains a dream. Since 1972, the football team has beaten Ohio State just once. The basketball team, as mentioned, hadn’t won in Columbus in 40 years until this January. Ohio State had inflicted so many heartbreaks on Northwestern basketball in the past (i.e. Jared Sullinger) that you felt Northwestern had to beat Ohio State at least once if it wanted to complete its dream season.
The game was ugly. There were 45 fouls called, 47 free throw attempts and a good number of people bemoaning Big Ten basketball on Twitter. But for Northwestern, none of that mattered. Despite an abysmal stretch in the second half in which Northwestern didn’t score for four minutes, Northwestern found a way to harpoon the eternal Moby Dick that is Ohio State. The Buckeyes fought valiantly. Northwestern went up 69-62 with less than a minute remaining, but two three-pointers kept it a one-possession game. But unlike past Northwestern catastrophes, the Wildcats made their free throws and came out of Columbus with a 74-72 victory.
4) Northwestern hosts Purdue in front of packed Welsh-Ryan, national TV audience on Senior Day
By Will Ragatz
For one electric Sunday afternoon, Evanston was the center of the college basketball world. Everything fell in place perfectly. It was the final game in Welsh-Ryan Arena as we know it. The CBS A-team of Jim Nantz, Grant Hill, Bill Raftery and Tracy Wolfson furthered the aura of big-time March basketball. And given what had happened just four days earlier (more on that later), the pressure was off, while the spotlight was on. Northwestern had an opportunity to go out and try to take down the Big Ten champs.
Wildcat fans, and especially the student body, recognized the significance of the day and came out in full force. There were lines to get in the building that formed well before the doors opened 90 minutes prior to tip. Students began filling both sections behind the baskets shortly thereafter, and both were packed half an hour before gametime. By the time Nathan Taphorn and Sanjay Lumpkin’s names were announced in an emotional senior day ceremony, there was hardly an empty seat in the house.
And boy, was it loud. The energy was unlike anything I had ever experienced. Nantz, who’s been at a lot more sporting events than I have, recently called it one of the top five atmospheres he’s ever been around. The overflowing student sections were shaking with rowdy fans clad in purple and white, yelling chants back and forth that made it hard to hear Nantz on TV. When Scottie Lindsey stuffed a Purdue layup attempt on one end and canned a three on the other to put the Wildcats up 9, it felt like the Welsh-Ryan roof was going to blow off.
Ultimately, Biggie Swanigan and Vince Edwards were too much for Northwestern and Taphorn’s late three fell short. But on this special afternoon, the result was of secondary importance as a peaking program had its moment in the national eye and a beloved arena was sent out in style.
3) Northwestern beats Maryland to advance to first Big Ten tournament semifinal
By Josh Burton
Red. Red everywhere.
That’s what Northwestern saw when it walked into the Verizon Center for its Big Ten tournament quarterfinal. The Wildcats, fresh off a dominant win over Rutgers that featured an unprecedented 31-0 run, faced Maryland on a “neutral” court that was as far from neutral as possible.
Just over nine miles from Maryland’s College Park campus, Terrapin fans filled the building with haunting “Let’s go, Maryland!” chants that drowned out the much-smaller Northwestern contingent. But, as Melo Trimble and Anthony Cowan struggled in the second half and the Terps’ 10-point lead was erased with a 20-2 Northwestern run, those cheers turned to groans.
Chris Collins, who battled Maryland multiple times as a player with Duke, was finally able to get his first win over Mark Turgeon’s squad as a coach, doing so in stunning fashion. It sent the Terps’ faithful streaming for the exits well before the final buzzer sounded and signaled, for sure, that Northwestern had more basketball to be played.
2) Northwestern beats No. 7 Wisconsin in Madison
By Zach Pereles
Ask anyone in the car ride up to the Kohl Center. I felt good about this game coming in. I wasn’t sure why. I liked the fact that the Wildcats had defeated the Badgers last year in Evanston. I liked the matchups. Without Scottie Lindsey and coming off a disappointing performance against Illinois, Northwestern had only one choice, but it was the choice it had converted on time and time again this season: to respond.
So Bryant McIntosh played 40 minutes in one of the most complete and inspired individual performances of the season. Vic Law shut down Bronson Koenig and would have played all 40 had he not fouled out under a minute remaining. Dererk Pardon and Sanjay Lumpkin stymied Big Ten first-teamer Ethan Happ with well-timed double-teams. Nathan Taphorn hit two three-pointers as part of a 16-0 first-half run. The Wildcats churned up the Badgers in a place that had been a slaughterhouse for so many visitors; it was Wisconsin’s first loss at home this season.
This game represented something bigger than the final score, which read 66-59 at game’s end. It was one of several examples that showed that this Northwestern team was really “different,” and the big win the Wildcats’ resume sorely needed. After falling apart down the stretch against the Illini, McIntosh was the difference-maker over the final 3:46, scoring eight points, dishing out two assists and committing zero turnovers.
“Best player on the floor, hands down,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said.
And at that point, best win ever for the program. But then came...
1) Nathan Taphorn to Dererk Pardon
By Ian McCafferty
That’s the only thing that ran through my mind when Dererk Pardon caught a 94-foot pass from Nate Taphorn with 1.7 seconds on the clock. Then after the first impossible task had been completed, he got the shot off in time. He made the shot. Madness ensued as hundreds of students began to pile onto the court.
(Then Zach Pereles started yelling at me to finish and publish the rapid reaction for the game.)
There’s honestly no real way to accurately describe the emotions linked to this game. It was like the feeling you get when school is out for summer break or you just finished an incredibly stressful presentation at work. All the tension, the years of ineptitude, just came pouring out in a wave of relief. There couldn’t have been a better metaphor than students rushing onto the court in a chaotic frenzy, because that’s what everyone’s emotions were doing at that exact moment.
It wasn’t just the greatest moment in this incredible season, it wasn’t even just the greatest moment in Northwestern basketball history, it was the start of a new era of Northwestern basketball. An era that has success as the rule, not the exception.
Here’s to all the moments like this to come.
By Isaac Bushnell
From an anecdotal standpoint, the setting in which I witnessed this all-time sports moment was that of a crowded bus, full well past reasonable capacity with loud 20-year-olds who had absolutely no idea or thought towards the history that Assistant Coach Brian James was drawing up on his clipboard at 8:15 PM on a Wednesday night. I sat crammed into the back corner of this bus, using up likely half my allotted cell phone data for the month to watch the game’s final 1.7 seconds via a significantly delayed, sub-180p BTN2go live stream.
I could not hear the commentary, I could not sense the atmosphere, but what I could see was the camera traveling up the court, stopping as a blurred mass rose toward the basket, and the subsequent sea of black and then purple flooding onto the Welsh-Ryan floor. That was all that was needed to grasp the significance of what had just happened, and to create a wave of chills down my spine and goosebumps across my skin that will live in my memory forever.
From a calculated analytical standpoint, I think that the significance of the moment has (quite understandably) overshadowed just how incredible of a basketball play “The Pass” was. The chances that you see that replicated on a basketball court again, or even the chances that the Wildcats were to pull that off if they had the exact same opportunity again, are slim-to-none, and that in itself adds to its legacy.
By Josh Burton
I actually was in the student section for The Pass, and was right behind The Passer, Nathan Taphorn. As his heave sailed through the air, I personally thought it was long and — with 1.7 seconds left on the frozen block — would give Michigan a chance to win under the Northwestern basket.
Of course, I was wrong, but it wasn’t my eyes that made me realize. It was my feet.
As Dererk Pardon put in the game-winning layup, I almost fell down as the old wooden benches shook and swayed as pandemonium hit. Everyone streamed down to the court. I did the opposite and walked up to the concourse, trying to grasp what I just witnessed. When I reached the top of the steps, I looked back and saw hundreds of ranting and raving purple-clad people mobbing uniformed players and suited coaches. I thought I’d seen the movie before, but this team it had an alternate ending.
The Christian Laettner play immediately came to mind, as did the understanding that I had just witnessed history that can never be repeated. Sports are cool in that you don’t know when something unexplainable is going to happen or who is going to be involved. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
By Will Ragatz
Like Josh, I was in the student section on the night of the greatest play in Northwestern basketball history. Unlike Josh, I was right behind the basket where Pardon made the shot. Having arrived at Welsh-Ryan an hour before tip, I was standing in the front row. I couldn’t have asked for a better vantage point to watch a play that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. Of course, being the milennial that I am, I had to have my phone ready.
I wasn't dreaming. This actually happened last night: pic.twitter.com/gDdZBahCBy— Will Ragatz (@WillRagatz) March 2, 2017
You’ve undoubtedly already read countless stories about this play and its signficance, so I won’t wax poetic about it here. I’ll just say that there couldn’t have been an easier pick for the top moment of the year. It’s a play that will go down in Northwestern lore and college basketball history in general. Despite the happiness Selection Sunday will bring, March 1, 2017, will forever be remembered as the day the rock broke.
By Zach Pereles
It’s unbelievably cliche to feel it felt like forever, but people forget those 1.7 seconds really did take a long time. Northwestern took timeout. The teams took the floor. Michigan took timeout. The teams took the floor. And then it happened. From my perspective in the corner of Welsh-Ryan Arena in the second deck on the same end of the basket, I thought it was a great pass. I actually thought it was going to be, at worst, tipped away and the teams would go to overtime. When Pardon caught it, I stood up. It’s an objective press area, but I’m somewhat certain almost everyone in that area was standing, Michigan writers included. Sometimes, sports plays transcend sports. I wrote about it that night, and I could write thousands of words about it again. But I won’t.
Instead, I’ll tell you the two moments I remember best. In the moment, I remember, as Ian mentioned above, yelling — amid a plethora of “Holy *insert four-letter word*” — “Get it up! Just publish it!” Ian did a great job of doing just that. He had done everything I as an editor could have asked for, having already written a “Northwestern beats the buzzer” lede, because if it hadn’t then we’d have five minutes to fix it. So that’s moment one. We had it published less than five minutes after the ball went through the nylon.
Moment two came maybe an hour later. Maybe more, maybe less. I don’t quite remember, because I ended up going to bed at 5 a.m. the next morning. During the press conference, I shot a quick email to basketball media director Nick Brilowski asking if I could talk to Brian James. He graciously agreed. And after the main press conference was over, I stood with James and former Inside NU co-Editor-in-Chief Henry Bushnell and talked to James for about 10 minutes. It was magical. Henry and I could barely hide our excitement, smiling throughout as the man who designed the play described the play and so much more to us so perfectly. I’ll never forget standing there with the person who taught me so much about writing and the person who designed the greatest play in Northwestern basketball history.
It’s been quite a ride, hasn’t it?