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With the resilience that scaled a mountain, Northwestern climbs another one

The Wildcats were often down, but never out.

Purdue v Northwestern Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

I wrote this story 292 days ago.

It focused on processing emotions. In trying to process something as monumental as this — Northwestern men’s basketball knocking off No. 1 Purdue at Welsh-Ryan Arena for the second time in a calendar year — you start there. You start with the similarities to grasp the reality that lightning did strike twice.

You witnessed the return of the Gothic uniforms. You saw a packed, sold-out student section clad in black.

You watched a first half where Purdue immediately gained control on the offensive end by playing through Zach Edey, who found knockdown three-point shooters out of the post at will and dictated defenders like he had them on a yo-yo. You shook your head at how NU built its slow-paced offense littered with highly-contested shots on a house of cards that somehow wouldn’t blow over. You knew that Northwestern was always down in those 20 minutes, but somehow never out.

You remembered those feelings.

You admired Boo Buie’s steady scoring and his bottomless bag of poetic responses. Your emotions heated up as the Boilermakers cooled down from deep, and the aggressive Northwestern defense began to burn the floor purple. You watched that persistent second-half push, and an iconic three-point play to seize the lead and the crowd.

You remembered those feelings.

You beamed as a star guard made a trademark play that looked like it clinched the game in the closing minutes, and then...

Let’s stop there.

I actually didn’t watch that Buie floater with 3.9 seconds left in regulation go down.

When it became clear that Northwestern had a chance to win the game on its final possession with about 40 seconds to go in regulation, David Gold, Bradley Locker and I leapt out of our seats in the press row on the top floor and sprinted to the court level.

Weirdly enough, we had actually planned for this in advance. Seeing what had happened in February, and knowing what was potentially in store, we wanted to get the best and closest shot of a court-storming video possible if the situation called for it.

Even just 12 hours later, those few minutes still feel like a blur. I ran past the Purdue locker room, and got blocked by three security guards who might have thought I was trying to storm the court (and understandably so). I saw Buie’s shot graze the bottom of the net, and heard Welsh-Ryan Arena hit a crescendo only matched by No. 0’s and-one that gave the ‘Cats a 48-47 lead.

A couple of seconds later, we reunited on the sideline near half-court and knelt so the Purdue fans behind us could watch. As chaotic as the scene around me felt like — I was trying to keep a live feed going on our Twitter, confirm our plan and learn why the student section erupted in a roar — there was a part of me that felt as in control there as I had all night.

We planned for the unthinkable. And for once that night, and maybe in the last 10 months, we were ready for it.

Until we weren’t. Purdue completed the pass, Edey finished the layup and we had overtime. We jogged back upstairs, and quickly decided we were not doing that again.

Just when the three of us thought we’d seen it all, the game whipped out a 12-6 curveball with more break than Clayton Kershaw’s. And then, if that wasn’t enough, so did the Wildcats.

The similarities of this game to that Feb. 12 clash serve as the foundation for wrapping your head around it, but the differences are what make it special. The biggest one is that this win wasn’t a rock fight. Instead, it was a slugfest.

At a media availability on Thursday afternoon, Chris Collins said that Northwestern would likely need the score to fall in the low 60s to win this game. Of course, that didn’t happen, and Edey was just one foul away from wiping out NU’s entire frontcourt. His 35 points and 14 rebounds don’t fully capture the profoundness of his impact, which Collins compared to Tim Duncan’s after the game. Unlike last season, he also got help from his backcourt; Fletcher Loyer and Braden Smith combined for 29 points on 50% shooting, and constantly beat defenders off the dribble in the early going.

In the first 10 minutes, almost everything defensively went wrong for the ‘Cats. They couldn’t cover ball screens, and Smith was getting to the hoop at will. When Lance Jones hit a three-pointer to extend Purdue’s lead to 13 with 7:30 in the first half, it seemed like the Boilermakers were about to end the game before it had really even started. As thrilling as the 2022-23 iteration of this game was, Northwestern’s deficit never reached double digits. The PU fans in attendance roared as Collins called a timeout.

“We just talked about, the game is a long game,” Collins said after the game. “Hang in there. We’ve got to shut it off now. We can’t let them get away from us.”

In the midst of some unfamiliarity, they remembered those feelings.

Northwestern’s responses began with how it chipped away at that early deficit and cut the lead to eight points at halftime, which Collins took pride in. They wouldn’t stop, and they came from nearly everyone.

They came from Luke Hunger, who, in his de-facto Big Ten debut, played the best game of his young career and sparked NU’s second-half run with his defense on Edey. They came from Ryan Langborg, who began hitting tough shot after tough shot down the stretch just when it looked like his shooting slump would continue. They even came from Blake Preston, who stuck his hand in the post to force the decisive turnover in overtime.

They came from Ty Berry, who rose up from start to finish and served as the consistent second perimeter option that Northwestern needed to win this game.

And then there was Buie, who might go down as the greatest player to ever don purple and white.

Buie did more than just lead Northwestern on Friday night; he defined it. He didn’t get good looks late in the shot clock early on, largely due to Purdue’s focus on smothering him off the ball. Yet, he constantly made magic out of a sliver of space. Facing a deficit and taller defenders collapsing on him, he just slithered into the lane and found ways to score when there seemed to be none.

Northwestern is an under-recruited point guard like Buie. It was too small. It wasn’t supposed to win this game getting outrebounded 52-27 and committing 29 fouls. Every success story should be the exception. If it were to happen again, it certainly wouldn’t come from players at the back of the rotation playing big minutes against the Wooden Award favorite. It’s tough to bet on a coach that most wanted fired at this point last year, and a captain labeled as inefficient. They could have just been lucky.

They remembered the feeling, and wrote this story.