SALT LAKE CITY -- It didn’t exactly go how Bryant McIntosh had dreamt it up.
“You don't really imagine being down one and getting fouled very often,” McIntosh said. “You envision yourself hitting the game winner. But to be able to do that at the free throw line was very relaxing.”
Hitting free throws following a foul 50 feet from the basket may not be the most storybook way to win a basketball game, but being the best player on the floor in your first ever NCAA tournament game is a pretty good substitute.
McIntosh has been the motor for Northwestern’s offense all season, whether its setting up teammates or scoring himself, most possessions runs through number 30. Its not the first time McIntosh has put the team on his back for a big game. His 25-point, seven-rebound, seven-assist performance against Wisconsin earlier this season comes to mind. But he’s never even had a chance to perform a stage like this.
25 points, three assists, 10-of-16 from the field, three-of-five from three. McIntosh played his best in the biggest game of his life.
It started early. McIntosh opened the game with a bucket off the glass, followed by a three-pointer. Then came his patented floater and another corner three. Ten minutes into the game and he the point guard had 10 points.
“I thought he was in a good rhythm early. He had great pop today,” head coach Chris Collins said. “Right away he was really confident. He had a great look. He looked fresh. We rely on him to do so much for us out there.”
Fast forward to the second half and McIntosh was back at it, but this time he was keeping Northwestern alive down the stretch. Over the final 5:22 of Northwestern’s first ever NCAA tournament game, the team only hit two field goals: both Bryant McIntosh midrange jumpers, the second one a one-on-one pull-up coming off a spin move.
No one remember the shots that come before the game winner, but if McIntosh had missed the shot that put Northwestern up 63-62 with 1:12 left, there very well may have not been a chance at a game winner.
“I thought Bryant was the best player on the floor the whole game,” head coach Chris Collins said. “He ran our team, he scored himself, he got other guys shots, and his two free throws to win it at the end were huge.”
However, those “two free throws” are still the biggest caveat to the whole story. If McIntosh had finished the 1-of-2 from the line — if he had missed one single free throw — he’s the goat, even if unfairly so, not the hero.
McIntosh stepped up, in the biggest moment of his basketball life, with the entire weight of a program on his shoulders, and calmly hit two free throws. It looked like he was in the McGaw Fieldhouse in October, not the NCAA Tournament in March.
And all of this came after having to handle the emotions of a 15-point second half lead and an inexplicable foul from Vanderbilt just seconds before.
“When he grabbed me I was kind of surprised. I had thought we were down one, instead of up one. I thought maybe I made a mistake,” McIntosh said. “And to see that we were down one and he fouled, I just had to put my mind on making the free throws at the end.”
In a way it was also a bit of redemption for McIntosh. Redemption for a mistake in a game now long forgotten to time, against Maryland his freshman year. With Northwestern leading 65-64 against the No. 13 team in the nation, McIntosh was sent to line for a 1-and-1 with 29 seconds left. The then-freshman point guard clanked the first free throw, and seconds later Northwestern was filing off the court in defeat, having lost 68-67 on a Dez Wells last-second putback.
He didn’t miss the free throws against Vanderbilt.
It’s just another hatchet buried in a year that has been all about burying the suffering of the past.
Foul aside, everyone in the arena knew that McIntosh would have the ball in his hands at the end no matter what, and that’s exactly the way Chris Collins wanted it.
“I trust him quite a lot. I've always trusted him. I've trusted him since I put the ball in his hands, day one his freshman year,” Collins said. “The kid is a winner. He lives, breathes, sleeps this. He's passionate about winning the game. He wants the ball in those situations.”
Thanks to a mistake by Vanderbilt’s Matthew Fisher-Davis all McIntosh had to do was hit from the line, punctuating a performance that led Northwestern to its first ever NCAA tournament victory.
Now the only question that remains is simple. Can he do it again? Northwestern will look to him to lead this unprecedented season to new heights Saturday against Gonzaga.