Finding any significant upsets in Northwestern basketball’s 115-year history was an arduous process, as Northwestern has almost always lost the games it was supposed to lose.
Living as a bottom-feeder in the Big Ten, there have always been chances for big-time, program-altering wins against the likes of Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana, Ohio State and so on. However, the ‘Cats have rarely been able to capitalize on these opportunities.
One can only hope that this 2021 recruiting class, with Julian Roper committed and the dream of Patrick Baldwin Jr. and Max Christie still alive, can change the program’s trajectory.
But for now, we have the following upsets to be proud of.
2017 buzzer beater against Michigan
Context is important here: this game was played during the best season in school history. A win would lock up NU’s first winning record in conference play since 1968. More importantly, the win would give Northwestern the resume builder it needed to get off the NCAA tournament bubble and firmly into the field of 64.
In what was a hard fought game from start to finish, Vic Law lead the way for NU with 18 points, five rebounds and three assists against the No. 23 Michigan Wolverines. With the game tied at 65 with 1.7 seconds remaining, the unthinkable happened.
Needing to go the full length of the court at Welsh-Ryan Arena, Nathan Taphorn launched the ball perfectly to the to the opposite end of the court where Dererk Pardon had sealed his man. This allowed Pardon to get off an acrobatic left-handed, game-winning layup at the buzzer for the Wildcats and secure Northwestern’s first-ever tournament berth.
1975 against Kentucky
In the second game of the 1975-1976 season, Northwestern faced off against a powerhouse Kentucky team. UK was the No. 6 team in the nation at the time during the Joe B. Hall dynasty and fresh off of a runner-up finish against UCLA in the NCAA Tournament. Northwestern, conversely, finished 6-20 in the previous season under Tex Winter.
In a shocking result, Northwestern knocked off Kentucky 89-77 behind a career day for Billy McKinney, who finished with 31 points, seven assists and two rebounds for unranked ‘Cats.
1994 win over the Fab Five (minus Chris Webber)
In the last regular season game of the 1993-1994 season, Northwestern faced the Michigan Wolverines — a tall task for the Wildcats. Steve Fisher’s squad was coming off two straight National Championship appearances with the same core, except Chris Webber who entered the NBA Draft.
As the No. 8 team in the nation, Michigan was a national contender again and ultimately advanced to the Elite Eight, but a 97-93 overtime loss to NU earlier that season prevented the Wolverines from winning the Big Ten regular season outright.
1988 over Indiana
The Hoosiers were at the peak of their dynasty under Bobby Knight as defending champions. Indiana was the No. 12 team in the nation while Northwestern was 4-5 coming into the game and finished the season 7-21.
However, on this day, Northwestern exceeded expectations and knocked off the Hoosiers 66-64, as Jeff Grose led the way with 18 points at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
2020 vs. Penn State on Senior Day
There may be a heavy amount of recency bias toward this win, not to mention the fact that it was the one of maybe two significant wins this year. However, after incredible struggles all season, especially during conference play, the team banded together against a top-20 opponent on senior day. Miller Kopp’s 21-point outing led to an 11-point win over the Nittany Lions in a happy ending to the 2020 regular season.
What other games come to mind? Comment your most memorable upsets below.