It still doesn’t feel real.
Northwestern just beat the No. 1 team in the country for the first time in the 74 years the Associated Press has ranked the top 25 teams in men’s college basketball. This team, which went into this season without its leading scorer from 2021-22 and was led by a head coach that many assumed to be a lame duck, has never flown higher.
It is impossible to overstate how important Sunday was to Northwestern basketball as a program. So I won’t try to.
It’ll also be impossible to forget.
Sunday was bound to be distinctive, wasn’t it? You would’ve thought so walking down Walker Way at noon, looking up at a blue sky on a 50-degree day with a long line ahead stretching out the door over an hour before tipoff. That line was filled with students who reserved tickets for this game so quickly after they became available that they crashed a website. Just your average February day in Evanston.
The thing is, that’s been the case this entire winter. Yet, when I looked around Welsh-Ryan about a minute before tip at a roaring Purdue upper level and an NU student section that was every bit as loud, I couldn’t help but grin as if this was the first time that had ever happened. It still didn’t feel real. And then, Matt Nicholson won a jump ball against Zach Edey. Maybe I had a point.
The first 20 minutes of this game were exceptionally normal. Edey struggled early with Northwestern’s post double-teams, but the Boilermakers fluidly set up Mason Gillis and their other red-hot shooters with open three-point looks. And as they have all year, the ‘Cats managed to eke out just enough offense on contested shots to stay within striking distance.
Somehow, even though Edey took eight free throws while the ‘Cats went a combined 1-of-9 from three-point land, Purdue went into halftime up only seven. Somehow, Matt Nicholson and Tydus Verhoeven had a combined two fouls defending the Naismith favorite due in large part to that constant post double.
“We wanted [Nicholson] and Tydus to just fight, just try to push him off his spot, try to get him a little bit off the block,” Collins said. “We don’t have the depth on the front line to play him one-on-one because he would’ve fouled out all our guys. So, we made the decision, we were coming, we were swarming and then we just told our guys to just fly around in rotation.”
It seemed to work, especially after Purdue began to cool off from deep late in the half, but there was still a sense of inevitability lingering that Edey would gradually get going and lead his team to a victory. Hunter Dickinson had done it in the same building just 10 days earlier.
Edey got to work quickly, the Purdue faithful got loud and everything seemed... well, normal. Chase Audige was still ice-cold on offense, and Boo Buie was slightly cooling down after a 13-point first half on 6-of-10 shooting. Nevertheless, the Boilermakers never got the lead to double digits. They couldn’t capitalize on the open threes that Edey freed up as they had in the first half, and Northwestern answered every one of Purdue’s runs with a small one of their own to stay within reach.
At about the four-minute mark, when Edey made yet another hook shot to bring Purdue’s lead back to eight and prompt Collins to use a timeout, I thought about the Ohio State football game in November. For three quarters, NU fought through an ugly game to scare a national title contender that was favored by 38 points. But then, C.J. Stroud turned on the jets late in the game, and it became clear that an upset of that magnitude in Evanston was never really a possibility on that windy day, but just a dream.
These are two different sports with two wildly different upset potentials. But in both cases, the best players usually win. Heisman, Naismith, whatever; they tend to get it done.
The best player on the court in the last four minutes was Chase Audige.
At that point, my memories started going from comprehensive stretches to sharp flashes. Fitting, given this was a blackout game.
Buie somehow snaked through the lane to snag an offensive rebound and found an open Audige in the corner. A sea of hands started on top of heads, rose up in the air and ended up flying around wildly.
“A shot went through,” Audige said.
Ten seconds later, the senior stripped Fletcher Loyer and glided away. Berry fell down trying to get with him in transition after getting pushed from behind. It looked like a long touchdown run you’d see on an NFL Films highlight reel in slow motion. Audige then slammed it home, everything whipped back into full speed and something along the lines of an audible “this cannot be happening” slipped out of my mouth.
“And then the rim started looking a little bigger.”
Truth be told, nothing from the next two minutes really stuck. Northwestern cut it to one, and then Audige rattled home a corner three with two defenders closing out on him. I saw three things: a lot of jumping, Buie throwing his hands up in the air and the Northwestern media members in my row of the press section trying desperately not to lose our minds.
“And then whatever happened, happened.”
The ‘Cats were up on the No. 1 team in the nation with 91 seconds left. Trying my best to hammer this into my head, I of course punched into Twitter in all caps, “THE NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS ARE BEATING THE NO. 1 TEAM IN THE COUNTRY WITH 1:31 TO PLAY.”
Then I remembered I really should have been trying my best not to look like this:
To my credit, I did an okay job of that in the final minute simply because I hadn’t really processed what had happened. I’m not sure anyone did. All I saw from that Audige shot until the final buzzer were deflected passes, shirtless fans popping up on the scoreboard, some free throws and a vivid image of Brooks Barnhizer standing alone on a fastbreak, waiting eagerly for Berry to pass him the ball. It never got quiet.
I remember the Northwestern logo at half-court turning into the wall of death of a gigantic, black mosh pit.
I remember panicking because my video of that court-storming wouldn’t upload to Twitter for 15 minutes.
I remember realizing that this was also a first for the seniors who went through three straight losing seasons together and struggled to win close, high-intensity games like this one.
“We work so hard, like Chase said, we put in so much work together,” Buie said. “And we’ve been through so many ups and downs, that it’s finally starting to show what the real us is. I’m just super excited that we were able to get this win today and show everybody what we can really do.”
It’s only fitting that a season that has shocked nearly everyone — both by the fact that it will probably feature an NCAA Tournament berth and by the way it has captured the student body’s attention — culminates in a victory beyond the wildest of dreams. The ‘Cats won this game shooting 4-of-22 from three. A ceiling might exist for NU, but it’s hard to picture knowing that.
You can worry about Audige’s slow starts or the lack of a consistent third option, and how those issues might impact Northwestern’s chances against Indiana and Iowa. But not today. Today is about the Wildcats breaking a ceiling by proving they can beat any team in the country.
Collins put it best with what may have been a joke. “All I know is that we had 64 and they had 58.”