It has been six years since the Northwestern Wildcats appeared in March Madness. As of a week ago Saturday, NU is as high as a No. 10 seed or one of the last four teams in the field, according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and CBS’s Jerry Palm, respectively.
So far in 2023, NU (15-6, 6-4 Big Ten) will look to do the same again as it sits in fourth place behind Rutgers, Illinois and Purdue, and looks for win number 16 Thursday night against Michigan (11-10, 5-5 Big Ten).
But how the Wildcats clinched their last postseason ticket will be talked about for years to come, as those same Wolverines were the victims of the best NU win in recent memory.
Going back to 2017, the Wildcats were led by a cast of characters who loved relishing in the underdog role, especially Dererk Pardon. The game was a track meet, almost like a mini-heavyweight fight, if you will.
Northwestern entered the game searching for its 10th conference win, coming off a 2015-16 season where the team failed to win 10 games in league play. Meanwhile, Michigan was also fighting for its NCAA Tournament hopes, making the game critical for the “bubble watch” crowd.
The contest did not disappoint in the slightest. Both teams traded huge buckets in an epic, knock-down, drag-out war that Bryant McIntosh led against the Wolverines’ Derrick Walton Jr. Both players combined for 28 points in front of a jam-packed crowd at the old Welsh-Ryan Arena.
With the score tied at 65 apiece and Michigan having clawed its way back to make the game an instant classic, a little over a second stood between both Big Ten foes heading to the most critical overtime period of the season... or so everyone thought.
In a rarely executed play, if ever completed, Nathan Taphorn was assigned to throw in the inbounds pass and make something happen. That something, six years later, still resonates with Wildcats fans everywhere.
While football season had not arrived just yet, Taphorn delivered his best Clayton Thorson impression and hauled the pass as far as possible to the other end of the floor, perfectly placed to Pardon, who, with the season up for grabs, laid it up and in.
Pandemonium ensued, literally. Students rushed to the floor. Chris Collins, who was in his fourth year as head coach at the time, was mobbed by reporters who were just as amazed as everyone else. Better yet, after 49 long-winded years, it felt like a monkey was finally off Northwestern’s back.
“You know, we needed to win this game, Pardon told Big Ten Network’s Stephen Bardo afterward. “We told ourselves, ‘We’re gonna die before lose this game.’”
NU went on to lose in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament, earning a spot in March Madness and advancing to the second round before having its Cinderella season end at the hands of Gonzaga, as the Wildcats finished the season 24-12 with a 10-8 record in league play. However, years later, the final play and game as a whole serves as the peak of positive emotion in Northwestern fandom, and a reminder of what the program can be.