Way back in late November, Northwestern was 20.6 seconds away from sealing a massive, potentially season-defining, statement win. The Wildcats were up 66-65 on the undefeated Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the final of the Legends Classic in Brooklyn and inbounding the ball from under their own basket with two timeouts still in their back pocket. All the Wildcats had to do was successfully get the ball in play, hit their free throws and the whole college basketball world would be on notice that this could potentially be “The Year”.
Senior Nathan Taphorn, who had played a huge part in staking his team to their late lead with four second-half threes, was tasked with executing the inbounds pass. As he received the ball from the referee, his teammates made their cuts and the five second count started. Nobody in white was able to free themselves and Taphorn panicked. He frantically pumped the ball over his head searching for a pass. As the official’s count approached five and he still saw none available, he froze, forgot about the timeouts, and tossed the ball into no man’s land around half court.
Irish point guard Matt Farrell scooped it up and turned to attack the rim. He had a free lane. Taphorn was the only one back. Shell shocked, he tried to slide in to draw a charge as Farrell laid the ball up, but was too late. And-one. Notre Dame in the lead. Opportunity squandered. Was this going to be the same old story for Northwestern basketball?
Just over three months later, on a Wednesday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena, Taphorn found himself once again with the ball in his hands on the baseline with just seconds remaining, and took this opportunity to ensure that that would not be the case.
His pass to Dererk Pardon all but clinched Northwestern’s first ever NCAA Tournament birth, and cemented Taphorn’s place in program lore. It was an appropriate capstone to the sharp-shooters four years of hard work and dedication in Evanston.
Numbers taken from KenPom.com.
Taphorn’s offensive rating of 125.3 was by far the highest mark of his career and was fueled by his astounding three point shooting numbers. In a career high 83 attempts from beyond the arc, he made an astounding 47% of them, a clip which would have been good for 16th best in the nation if he had the required amount of shots to qualify. Even more incredibly, those numbers jumped way up in important games against quality opposition, as ‘Tap’ logged a 62.5% rate of success from deep against opposition in the RPI Top 50 rankings.
Overall, his 2016-17 numbers show that he was better able to stick to and emphasize his strengths as a three point specialist this year in comparison to his previous three years. He was able to play more minutes at a career low usage rate but shoot more shots at a higher efficiency while also limiting his fouls and turnovers.
Stats via hoop-math.com.
Taphorn’s true shooting percentage of 66.3 led the team in 2016-17. This was mainly due to his team leading 47 percent success rate from behind the line.
These numbers underscore how strictly the senior stuck to his role as a catch-and-shoot three-point specialist. He was the only player on the team with more than 20 attempts to have over half of them come from three-point range, with his proportion sitting at a whooping 75.5 percent. Additionally, only Gavin Skelly ranked above him in terms of percentage of assisted baskets in all categories.
There is an old adage in sports: “Do your job.” Nate Taphorn was the personification of that old adage for Northwestern this season. He was so consistently lethal with his long range jump shot that Inside NU’s Zach Pereles compared the automatic nature of his stroke to that of two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry on a podcast back in December, and it was a claim that was very hard to argue. Night in and night out, Tap performed his niche role on the offensive end about as well as he possibly could have, plain and simple.
It also deserves recognition that, despite being perceived throughout his career as one of the quieter, less-colorful guys on the team, Tap unmistakably assumed a leadership role in his final year as a Wildcat. He was confident and level headed in all situations, content with however he was used, never afraid of stepping up and excelling in big moments and big games (think Wisconsin, Michigan and Gonzaga), and undeniably set an example for younger role players on the team to follow.
Despite flashes like his tip dunk against New Orleans or his two crucial blocks at home against Rutgers, Taphorn did not manage to meaningfully expand his game beyond the three point shot. He had the worst field goal percentage of any player on the team on attempts at the rim; had rebounding rates well below what would be expected of a 6-foot-7 forward; and was still neither quick enough to stick with any perimeter player without help or strong enough to bang with any post player down low.
He did a good job of playing within himself, executing well in team defensive schemes, and scrapping in the paint for lose balls and hustle plays when possible, but it cannot be ignored that he was severely limited as a player and those limitations made it hard for Chris Collins to leave his shooting out on the floor for extended periods.
Bask in all the hard earned residual glory from this historic season and get that degree!
There was realistically no better way that Nathan Taphorn’s Northwestern career could have ended. His pair of threes that sparked the Wildcats’ valiant second half fight back against Gonzaga in what would turn out to be his last game in purple and white were emblematic of the special and vital role that he played in this historic season. “The Pass” will rightly be what his lasting legacy is, but his invaluable leadership and incomparable dedication to and execution of his role should not go unnoticed.