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Northwestern provides stirring swan song to unforgettable season

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It took Northwestern 78 years to get here. The Wildcats’ performance reflected a team that always believed it belonged.

Northwestern v Gonzaga Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

With six minutes remaining, amid a raucous “Let’s Go Cats” chant, Scottie Lindsey trotted to scorers’ table. Dererk Pardon followed a couple of seconds later, and the shooting guard turned to his center and smiled. Normally a relatively reserved and soft-spoken guy, Lindsey had four words. He smiled wide, and he smiled genuinely.

“Let’s do this baby.”

Northwestern, at the time, had sliced a lead that had grown to as large as 22 points down to just six after a pair of Bryant McIntosh free throws. The Wildcat faithful were as loud as they had ever been — and they had been loud whether their team was down 17 or down just two possessions, as it was then.

“We were just super excited. I was telling him that were gonna win this game. We came up short, but in that moment we were super excited and we thought we were gonna win.”

Northwestern couldn’t dig out of a humongous hole it dug itself in the first half. The Wildcats looked out of sorts on both ends of the floor in the opening 20 minutes as Gonzaga point guard Nigel Williams-Goss picked the Wildcats apart to the tune of 14 points, six rebounds and four assists. The Wildcats turned it over eight times and made just nine of 30 shots, thoroughly confused by the Bulldogs’ switching defense both on and off the ball. Ultimately, the team couldn’t keep pace with the Bulldogs, who had 12 points off turnovers and 11 fastbreak points through one half of action. Chris Collins’ bunch looked unprepared, timid and simply not sharp, everything it was probably expected to be — but hadn’t been — just two days earlier in its tournament debut against Vanderbilt

“I think the first half we didn't play like we should have,” Vic Law Jr. said. “But we came out kind of dead. And then in the locker room at halftime, the cornerstone of our program is never quitting. I don't care how much we're down or what the situation is. We never quit.”

In the second half, the energy difference was obvious, yes, but so, too, was the level of execution. The Wildcats shot 50 percent from the field and hit seven threes after hitting just one in the first half. The turnovers went down and the points off Bulldogs turnovers went up as the No. 8 seed’s defensive activity was at a significantly higher level and its rotations more precise.

Vic Law Jr. caught fire. Bryant McIntosh got to his spots in the lane and got some open looks from beyond the arc. Nathan Taphorn, playing in his final game, hit two three-pointers. With its back against the wall, Northwestern very much played what Collins described as “the best basketball I've seen us play all season long.”

Collins admitted the the story of the game was the first half. And while the tournament debutants couldn’t quite get it done — through more than a little controversy and through some good clutch free throws by Mark Few’s club — it was certainly a moving effort.

In a season full of memories, perhaps the moment I’ll remember most is that smile that stretched across Lindsey’s face. Scottie Lindsey of last year might not have even played in the second half, much less entered in the stretch run of an important game. The same goes for Dererk Pardon. This year, they were having the times of their lives with thousands of screaming fans — a crowd that included Pat Fitzgerald and a plethora of other famous alumni — at their backs and in front of a national audience on the biggest stage of their careers. There are many reasons why I’ll remember this basketball season, personally. But for today, I wanted to know what the players will remember.

So I went into a locker room full of young men whose history-making months had come to a close in the harshest of manners — the sound of a single final buzzer — with a question: “What will you remember about this year and this experience?” I tried to get to everyone. I got to as many as I could.

Here are the highlights from what they said:

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Gonzaga vs Northwestern Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
  • I asked Vic Law Jr., sitting at the post-game press conference. His voice was quiet and higher pitched than normal, full of emotion: “Probably just this wave of excitement and joy that we've been on. I mean, I think coming out to start the season nobody really expected this team or this group to really amount to anything. And to play the way we did, to fight and to come on top like we did, I mean we made history in a way that has never been done at this university. And I think what I'll remember most is just the love that I share with my teammates, man. This is such a special moment. I don't think I'll ever forget this for the rest of my life.”

  • Bryant McIntosh, who followed Law’s answer and carried this group for stretches at a time during the back half of the conference season, answered as well: “I would just say that the bond and togetherness that we have as a group to defy all the odds, all the talk around us and about us that was just so special. Coming into the year one of our Chicago papers told us that we would be the third-best team in the Ivy League, and we proved that wrong right away... And this group, with these seniors, losing them is going to be heartbreaking. But this is a group that will be connected for the rest of our lives because of all the things we accomplished.”

  • I asked Scottie Lindsey, whose smile had shone as brightly as the lights he played under: “I’m just gonna remember how hard we worked to get to this point. Now we know what it feels like to be in the NCAA tournament. And just the love that everyone has for each other. We had so much fun, and I think that we’re gonna use everything that we learned this season and use it for next season.”

  • I approached Nathan Taphorn in the locker room where he was standing chatting with a staffer and Charlie Hall. He thought for a moment. He had just finished his final college basketball game. “Really the hardest question I’ve ever been asked.”

Then he answered: “Making history. I think that’s probably the one thing that will kinda resonate. Coach talks about it: This group only gets one year together, and that’s the lifetime, and then it’s over... Made history in the post-season making the tournament. Made history winning our first game. It’d be great to make even more history, but this time’s over now. You remember a lot.”

  • I then turned to Charlie Hall, who might be the most well-known player on this team thanks in large part to his mom/Northwestern super fan Julia Louis-Dreyfus: “I think I’m gonna remember the seniors the most down the line, because it’s the only thing that’s really gonna be gone for good. I think that everything that Sanjay and Tap brought, we all got so close. I’ve gotten so close with both of them over the past two years. And the fun and the love and the passion they bring every day, every game day, every practice is something that I’ll never forget, and I don’t think anyone else will either.”

  • I ambled over to Sanjay Lumpkin, who had also just finished his final game: “What I’m gonna remember most about this season is just being a part of this group of guys. We did make history. We did things this program’s never done, and that’s something that no one can ever take away from us. Just been a really special year and for this to happen during my last year, my fifth year, is a dream come true. I’m gonna really miss this program, miss playing with these guys. I look forward and I expect big things in the future.”

  • I walked over to Jordan Ash and Barret Benson, who have sat next to each other for the Big Ten tournament and the NCAA tournament: “The seniors,” Ash said. “This is probably the most together team I’ve ever been on. Everyone’s basically each other’s biggest fan, and everyone accepted this role, and at the end of the day it was for the sake of winning. Just the seniors, man, they’ve meant so much to this program and to this team and the coaches.

  • Barret Benson followed: “Like Jordan said, I’d definitely say the seniors. How they took me under their wings. Tap and Sanjay, I lived with them for a couple weeks in the summer. How they really looked out for me all year and taught me everything about working at this level, so I definitely appreciate that... This group of guys, they just look out for each other unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of. It’s just been great, great all year.”

  • Gavin Skelly obliged next: “Coming to the tournament for the first time was a crazy feeling and hopefully a feeling I’ll feel again next year, but it’s an amazing feeling to make it. All these years and all these dreams of coming here and finally you do it, it’s what success tastes like. So that’s the one thing I think I got out of this: what success tastes like.”

  • The last person I talked to in the locker room was the nation’s most fashionable redshirt player, Rapolas Ivanauskas: “Just the best friends I’ve ever had. The friendships and the camaraderie within the team, not even playing basketball. Just being in the hotels and the meals and having a good time and getting to know everyone, especially as a freshman.”

  • Finally, Chris Collins had answered the question long before all the players except McIntosh and Law Jr. But his thoughts summed it up well: “Just the heart of the guys. Like a lot of teams have. But everything that was thrown our way all year, we just tackled it. We lost Aaron Falzon and Rapolas before the season started. We lost Pardon for eight games. We lost Scottie right when we were playing our best. And we just kept fighting. These guys, there was no quitting. And it showed even tonight. A lot of teams would have rolled over at halftime. It wasn't going well. We weren't playing well. They were clicking on all cylinders, you're down by 20. And our guys refused to go down like that.”

“To me, the second half tonight is who that group was all year long. I loved coaching them. I told them in the locker room. They took me on an amazing ride this year. You're lucky as a coach when you get a special group of guys that just buy in and they're all in and they just want to win. There's no agenda other than just wanting to win. We were a really together group. And it just stinks. That's the part of the tournament that's really hard, because you're playing, you're preparing, you're in a game. And then that last buzzer — the finality of the NCAA tournament is really tough.”

Northwestern v Gonzaga Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images