NEW YORK — It was an all-too-familiar feeling for Bryant McIntosh.
One week ago, with his Senior Night game against Wisconsin out of reach, McIntosh subbed out in front of a Northwestern crowd for the final time. He embraced Chris Collins for a long moment, burying his head in the shoulder of the coach he shares such a close bond with. He hugged his teammates and coaches and watched the final seconds in his home whites tick away.
On Thursday night, the tears began to spill out before McIntosh reached the bench. As Penn State fans at Madison Square Garden began to celebrate, McIntosh’s face contorted into a pained grimace. His eyes reddened. His shoulders slouched.
The 55 seconds remaining in his career drained away, faster than McIntosh could have ever hoped as he sat helplessly on the bench, dabbing at his eyes with a towel.
Sitting next to him was Scottie Lindsey. The culmination of Lindsey’s career was, like Northwestern’s season, frustrating. The senior from Hillside, Ill. found himself sitting the game’s final 3:15 out after picking up his fifth foul on a questionable charge call. Missing their primary shot creator, Northwestern didn’t score again until Gavin Skelly made a free throw with 55 seconds remaining, which cut the Wildcats’ deficit to ten.
“I don’t really know how to feel,” Lindsey said after the game. “Obviously, this is not how we wanted the season to end. So I think we’re all a little emotional.”
With 17 seconds left, it was Skelly’s turn to exit. His emotion usually manifests in exuberant fist-pumps and spirited dance moves. Tonight, he broke down when he saw Collins on the sideline.
“It wasn’t tough [walking off the floor] until I saw Coach standing there. And I knew that was my last time walking off the court in a college uniform,” Skelly said. “I think that was the most difficult thing I’ve done in a while, emotionally.”
Nothing has come easy for Northwestern this year. There’s been malaise, regression, and attrition. But with three seniors who created a Northwestern basketball legacy —the Northwestern basketball legacy— stepping off the floor for a final time, the biggest challenge for the Wildcats is what comes next.
In the bowels of Madison Square Garden, the air had been sucked out of the visitor’s locker room. Blank stares abounded, voices were hushed, and the somber nature of the room turned introspective as players reflected on the 2017-18 season and these three seniors.
“It’s tough to realize it’s my last game ever I’m going to play with those guys,” redshirt sophomore Aaron Falzon said. “Since I came to the program three years ago, those are three of the guys that have been part of the core every day. Working with B-Mac, seeing Scott score, battling every day with Gavin for a spot, it doesn’t really seem like it would ever come to an end but it has. It’s hard to put into words.”
Arguably no Wildcat improved more this season than Anthony Gaines. The true freshman looked lost early in the season, afraid to take a jumper or attack the rim. Under the lights at the Garden, Gaines canned two of four three pointers in his fifth consecutive start. He said the seniors helped slow the game down for him as the season progressed.
“I’ve learned a lot from them as far as just reading the game and where to be. B-Mac is very talented, great IQ, so I learned a lot from him, especially,” he said. “Gavin...I try to match his energy. It brings a lot of good things to the team.”
It goes without saying that this class of seniors has accumulated a host of on-court accomplishments during their time at Northwestern. Perhaps the most important contribution to the program, however, came off the court. These seniors created a standard.
“They showed what it took to be leaders,” Vic Law said. “It carried us to the Tournament and I have nothing but respect for those guys. Hopefully when I graduate, the guys that are younger than me can say the same thing.”
Added Falzon: “They built the foundation.”
Northwestern basketball without program-builders like McIntosh, Lindsey, and Skelly is hard to conceptualize, but it’s a reality now.
A foundation doesn’t mean much without some above-ground development. With a highly-rated recruiting class headed to Evanston this fall and a renovated Welsh-Ryan Arena, it will be up to a new crop of leaders — Dererk Pardon, Law, Falzon — to build upon what’s already been created.
“It’s going back to our motto, Pound the Rock. We’re gonna come in, working hard everyday, be the guys that we know we can be — guys like Bryant, Scott and Gavin have shown us that we all can be,” Falzon said.
Gaines took it a step further by making a declaration of sorts.
“We’re not going to let what happened this year happen again.”