Even before he took the floor for Senior Day, Sanjay Lumpkin couldn't stop the tears. They came again as he walked onto the court, flanked by his parents for the ceremony, and they almost came a third time in his post-game press conference, but he had none left. He's been here for five years and he's played under two different head coaches. He's had a lot of struggles — injuries, blowout losses, heartbreaking close calls, the hopelessness as the calendar turns to March — and some bright spots, too, like when he was a clean-shaved freshman who joined Tre Demps, JerShon Cobb and Alex Olah to a win against Wisconsin at the Kohl Center and into a new era under Chris Collins. Understandably, it was an emotionally charged afternoon.
But then he found solace while standing in front of the reporters, still wearing the the home white No. 34 uniform that he might never wear again, clinging to the memories, the people and the progress. Because after five years in Evanston, he'll be doing something no Northwestern team has ever done.
"We all came to this school to play in games that mattered in March," Lumpkin said. "Against Michigan, the game we had to get, we drew a line. We said we'd rather die than lose that game. The reason why I came to this school was to be a part of history, to be a part of something bigger than myself, be on the first team that goes to the NCAA Tournament."
Northwestern was going to have to play some of its best ball to beat the Big Ten champs, plain and simple. The Boilermakers had already locked up the conference title but played all of their key players normal minutes, and they played hard. In the first half, Northwestern absorbed the Boilermakers' first punch — four consecutive makes to start the game — squarely on the chin and responded, taking a lead that would swell to as large as nine before entering the half tied in front of an incredible crowd that seemed on the brink of bringing down Welsh-Ryan days before the renovations would. The hosts shot over 50 percent from the field and hit four of their nine three-point attempts.
Even as Northwestern lost its touch in the second half, shooting under 38 percent from the field and missing all 10 of its three-point attempts, it was able to stay within a couple of possessions throughout and had several good looks to tie or take the lead. On an afternoon that had already been quite magical — from the seniors to the crowd to the national broadcast to the setting as the final game here — Northwestern battled valiantly just three-and-a-half days after the greatest moment in program history. If the hosts were exhausted, they didn't show it. In a David vs. Goliath matchup both physically — it was 6-foot-3 Bryant McIntosh trying to lift his team over 6-foot-8 Vince Edwards and 6-foot-9, 250-pound Caleb Swanigan — and in terms of program history, David certainly did not disappoint.
"I thought every time we had a chance to have that momentum-changing shot, we just weren't able to knock it down," Collins said. "Really proud of my team, really thought we fought. We withstood some cold shooting from some key guys and gave ourselves a chance to win against an outstanding team."
It was the cold shooting that ultimately decided the game. Scottie Lindsey didn't get on the board in the second half after scoring eight points in the first. Vic Law Jr., one game after breaking out of a massive shooting slump, was just 2-of-13 from the field. Northwestern's two athletic wings went a combined 5-of-24, a stat that not even Lumpkin and Dererk Pardon's combined 24 points on 10-of-11 shooting could negate.
"We need to continue to look for those guys and get them good shots," Collins said. "I know they'll produce. They've produced most of the year."
The outlook is still very positive. This team lost by 21 in West Lafayette last month in a game that wasn't even that close. And if you're a shot or two from knocking off the league champions, that's major improvement.
"I like where we're at," Collins said. "I'm excited about where we're at. I feel we're in a good place going into the postseason, which is a good feeling as a coach."
So looking forward, Northwestern can be proud of its accomplishments: A program record for total wins, a best-ever conference record and a first-ever tournament bid all but locked up are nothing to scoff at. But the team also has a great opportunity to solidify its March standing and even improve its seeding in Washington, D.C. It's a much different feeling than, say, last year, when the only bracketology the Wildcats were considered in were of the NIT variety. And with that opportunity, Northwestern has to be dutiful in its approach to show it is one of the conference's better teams. The 18-round boxing match that is the Big Ten is over. This team has a record number of wins, but is also 0-0.
"First and foremost we do have to get fresh, and this time of year, it's about keeping these guys fresh," Collins said. "We have to maximize our workload when we have it and make sure they have their downtime."
Northwestern's opponent is still to be determined — the Wildcats will face either Ohio State or Rutgers in the second round of the conference tournament — but for Collins, that's actually an advantage for his team: "Sometimes it's good when you don't really know who you're gonna play because you can really work on you. A lot of times we're always game-planning, we're always game prepping and sometimes you lose focus on making sure that we're good with what we do."
That means getting more jumpers up for Law Jr. and Lindsey, hoping to get them out of funks. That means more reps for bench players, which scored just four points against Purdue. It means more time to go over offensive and defensive sets and simply more time to improve rather than prepare.
For Northwestern, perhaps the loss against Purdue was indeed a letdown. Neither the seniors nor the stadium went out on the right note, and the Wildcats couldn't put a trademark stamp on what has already been a historic year. But Northwestern is playing meaningful games into the second week of March for the first time in several years and even later into the month of Madness for the first time ever. Sunday afternoon wasn't the perfect send-off for Welsh-Ryan, but this season overall very much has been. And it's not done yet.