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“We’re gonna break the rock”: the five-man story of Northwestern’s win over Michigan

Dererk Pardon starred. Brian James drew. Nathan Taphorn passed. Vic Law responded. Chris Collins led.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The hero is “undersized” at 6-foot-8. He regularly gives up inches to fellow Big Ten centers, having to outwork and outmuscle them for loose balls rather than simply out-leap them.

So with 1.7 seconds left and Nathan Taphorn’s pass flying over the Welsh-Ryan hardwood, into air filled with tension you could cut with a knife, it was a nice surprise for him to see Derrick Walton Jr., the smallest player on the court, as the only person in his way.

Pardon gathered and finished. On the surface, it was a relatively straightforward finish, though he did have to hang in the air to avoid Walton Jr. In reality, it was a finish that put so many unbelievably difficult finishes, not to mention the one this team suffered just days ago against Indiana, in the rearview. A finish that showed that this team’s mental fortitude, its players and its culture are unprecedented for a team that all but broke the ignominious streak it has carried for so long.

“As I caught it, I’m like ‘The rim was right there.’” Pardon had never practiced the play before. The Wildcats had only ever tried it once in practice, and the recipient then was Gavin Skelly, who too finished to win an intrasquad scrimmage. But when it counted, it was Pardon, who had been sidelined earlier in the game with two quick fouls but picked up just one more after that, scored nine points on just five field goal attempts and nabbed a team-high eight boards, who scored it. It was your backyard, draw-it-in-the-dirt-and-hope play — a Hail Mary with a twist that turned into the most important bucket in Wildcat history.

He didn’t quite know what to do — Who would have? — so he started running. But he couldn’t escape Scottie Lindsey or Taphorn or the teammates that piled on top of him. Nor could he escape the throngs of students who had flooded the court, all wanting a high-five, a fist-pump, heck, maybe even just to share the same ground as the man responsible for the greatest moment in this program’s history.

“I don’t know what I was doing. I just ran. All of the sudden I felt Scott grab me and all of the sudden I was on the ground. After that it’s just a blur.”

To be fair, the entire thing was a blur. One point seven seconds took forever. The minutes after that all collapsed into madness. Northwestern wouldn’t have it any other way.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The artist was kicking himself all week.

Brian James has “about three or four” end-of-game full-court plays in his back pocket, and this was one of them. But he hadn’t used it in Assembly Hall, and Bryant McIntosh’s half-court three spun out as the Wildcats lost. So he knew he was going to draw it up if given the opportunity tonight, and he was going to make it count.

“I was beating myself up for not running a play similar to that against Indiana,” the assistant coach said. “And I said ‘If God ever gives me another chance to do it again, hopefully it’ll work out this time.’”

First, he had to battle some of his fellow assistants.

“A couple of the assistants said ‘Let’s not risk a turnover. Let’s just get it in and go to overtime and play five minutes,” Collins said.

Then, he had to deal with two timeouts — one from his own squad that gave him time to draw up the play in the first place, and one from the Wolverines that made him question whether to readjust and rethink.

“Chris said ‘No, draw the same play that you drew the first time. Just redraw it again so they understand it a little bit more.”

The Xs and Os behind the play lined up perfectly. James expected Bryant McIntosh to be doubled. He was. Pardon got enough on both of the screens and then got the matchup he wanted with Walton Jr. The pass was perfect. It was a combination of factors.

“You can probably do it without any defense in a gym by yourself and probably it wouldn’t work,” James said. “Those things are gonna work one out of every 10 times.”

This time it did.

This time, Brian James’ creative genius made for the greatest chapter in this historically good season.

Northwestern Athletics

The passer thinks about it every day: the inbounds pass he threw away with Northwestern leading in the final seconds against Notre Dame.

Actually, change that tense to “thought.” Because after tonight, he has a new moment that won’t leave him for the rest of his life.

“That was a play I’ll always remember, especially it being my last week here at Welsh-Ryan,” Nathan Taphorn said. “It’s still kinda settling in; really surreal.”

The reward was obviously through the roof, but the risk was certainly palpable too. If Taphorn airmailed the pass — something Collins warned him against multiple times — and no one touched it, Michigan would have possession from where Taphorn had thrown it in with time still remaining. And as the trigger guy for what would turn into an iconic play, there were a lot of things running through his mind, especially after back-to-back timeouts.

“Don’t be afraid to use a timeout.”

“Don’t be afraid to throw it if it’s open.”

“Don’t throw it long.”

“Don’t throw it out of bounds.”

“It’s gonna be under their basket, make sure someone touches it.”

The extra time also gave Taphorn renewed confidence, though, because he got to see the play an additional time as well as get a new matchup: Mark Donnal, an inch shorter than D.J. Wilson (who had originally guarded the inbound pass).

“Taphorn made an incredible throw,” James said. “People want to talk a catch and finish, but the throw was right on the money from Nate Taphorn.”

The sharp-shooting senior also had another memory he goes through every day: last year’s loss to this same Michigan program in the Big Ten Tournament in which he missed a three at the buzzer. “I just missed it short,” Taphorn said of the miss that ended the Wildcats’ season. For a player who has experienced some major ups and downs with this program — individually and with his team — to have such a huge role in such a massive outcome only seems right in his penultimate regular season game, a game that may well have made his senior season the best in school history.

“That will always resonate with me... and so will the Notre Dame game, but this one will definitely top those two.”

2016 State Farm Chicago Legends Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The unsung hero was approximately 85 feet from Pardon when the ball went through the hoop. He was a side character in this part of the story, simply meant to draw a defender away from the intended target. But make no mistake: Vic Law Jr. was a major reason why Northwestern even had a chance in this contest.

Law had shot under 25 percent from the field over the past month or so. Especially with Lindsey out for an extended period and then not quite 100 percent, it was a slump that proved too much for the Wildcats to handle; they went 2-5 during the stretch.

And if you looked solely at Lindsey and McIntosh’s shooting numbers against the Wolverines, you reasonably would have expected Northwestern’s late-season slide to continue. Instead, the talented redshirt sophomore put in one of the finest performances of his career: a game-high 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting in 38 minutes. He looked aggressive early, getting short-range efforts for his first couple of buckets and then knocking down a three off the dribble to give himself seven points in a perfect 3-of-3 first half.

“I think coming out, especially this game, it was really important for me to go to the basket early,” said Law, who admitted he had taken too many tough mid-range jumpers. “We made a conscious effort right out of the gates to get him involved getting to the basket,” Collins added.

“This was great for Vic,” Pardon said. “We knew he’s been struggling lately, so we just told him to stay confident, and we believed in him. Everybody on this team believes he’s a great player. And once we said that, he knew what he had to do, and he executed.”

When Law is a scorer, he makes this team so much better, which is why with him struggling and Lindsey not 100 percent, the Wildcats struggled on that end. But with him connecting tonight, Law more than offset off nights from McIntosh and Lindsey; the Wildcats had their highest efficient field goal percentage since a blowout win against Iowa on January 15. When Law scores in double-digits Northwestern is 8-4 in conference play. When he doesn’t, his team is 2-4.

“This is the game I committed here for,” Law, who earned KenPom’s “MVP” distinction, said. “When I committed and everybody said ‘Why are you choosing Northwestern? They have no culture. There’s no basketball presence there.’ And to play in a game like this that — I don’t think any Northwestern team has played in a game so big as this — that really meant everything.”

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The head coach couldn’t find anyone to hug when the final buzzer sounded, so he looked for his family — the same family he had walked with into a dark Welsh-Ryan Arena the night he got the head coaching job in Evanston and had dreamt of nights such as these.

And ahead of the second-to-last game before the current version of that same arena is demolished and rebuilt again, Collins had to demolish and rebuild his message to his players. For much of the Big Ten season, Collins has preached staying away from the hype and the noise. He had preached each game as being “just another basketball game.” But after a second straight loss and with his team reeling, he changed his message.

“I came in and I challenged them, and I told them there was pressure. It was the first time I said ‘Guys there is pressure. And anything good in life involves handling pressure and succeeding under pressure, so we’re not gonna avoid it anymore. We’re not gonna skirt around it. We’re not gonna not talk about it. There is pressure on us. We gotta go out and win if we want to do something great.’”

For a program that has been historically inept under pressure, it was a risk. Though with a third-year sophomore, three juniors and two seniors in the rotation, it was a calculated risk. A group that has preached being different showed it could handle the pressure time and time again against the Wolverines, continuously answering the bell during a thoroughly entertaining and well-played second half.

For Collins, this was so important for so many reasons. The tournament ramifications, obviously, stand out. But so, too, does the management of the final 1.7 seconds when he decided to run the full-court play rather than play it safe. So, too, does the fact that he employed Barret Benson for 15 thoroughly effective minutes. So, too, does his team showing it was different instead of saying it. Northwestern, in the eyes of most people, needed one more “different” game to be a “different” team. And with Collins making a late season mentality shift, it worked.

“You know the effort and the work that goes into trying to do something like this,” James said. “And there’s a lot of stress to it, there’s a lot of sleepless nights, endless hours. And he has just worked so hard and gotten these kids to believe that this is the team that could do it. And you’ve got to give Chris Collins and the players all the credit.”

The program needed this. “We knew coming in that if we wanted to be different, this was the game we needed to take,” Law said.

It’s a program that has been so close, but also a program that has had years of hopelessness. It’s a program that went all-in on a first-time head coach who had nothing to sell but a dream and a vision — a dream of the NCAA Tournament and a vision of nights like Wednesday night, with packed stands and two tournament-quality teams going at it, with names like McIntosh and Law and Walton and Robinson battling it out before Pardon cemented his name in program lore in legendary fashion.

That’s why for just a moment, Collins choked up at his press conference. After the rush that was the final seconds and the court storming and the Gatorade bath and the opening statement, the magnitude of what he had done hit him like the 78-year weight — and wait — he has on his shoulders.

“It’s been a great journey so far,” the 42-year-old said, his voice swelling with emotion.

For James, to see his master plan come to life was an affirmation of the worth of that journey. His reaction told the story.

“I was in shock I jumped into Pat Baldwin’s arms, and he gave me a bear hug, and we acted like little kids.”

Just a few hours earlier, he, too, had swelled with emotion.

“I almost starting crying before the game, because I said tonight we’re not going to pound the rock,” James said. “We’re gonna break the rock.”

Sometimes that pass sails long. Sometimes it falls short. Sometimes it’s intercepted. Sometimes it’s tipped away. Sometimes it glances off the fingertips.

Sometimes that shot banks too hard off the glass. Sometimes it falls short. Sometimes it gets blocked. Sometimes the shooter loses it on the way up.

This is not one of those times.

This is not one of those teams.

This is The Year.