As fans trotted from a Northwestern Alumni pre-game party at nearby restaurant Punch Bowl Social down David Stern Walk into Sacramento’s Golden1 Center, natives of the city must have felt at peace. After all, Sactown’s downtown had been streaked with a deep purple, which typically occurs when the second-place Kings play at home.
On this Thursday afternoon, however, it was Wildcat proponents who had made the trek out west to support their beloved team — a moment six years in the making.
Ironically enough, hordes of Arizona Wildcat fans flooded for the exits from the arena subsequent to U of A’s upset to No. 15-seed Princeton in the prior game. In the next first-round Sacramento matchup, though, the NU Wildcats proved their mettle, beating No. 10-seed Boise State, 75-67.
Even as the crowd was still filing in to the Downtown Commons’ $550 million stadium, Northwestern faithful made its presence felt immediately, starting a call-and-answer chant of “Go U, NU” before tip-off. Despite Bronco fans getting amped as BSU rallied to cut deficits, especially in the second half, it was ‘Cat fans who had more to cheer for throughout the 40-minute battle.
From the get-go, Chris Collins’ team’s defense was stout, limiting the Broncos to just eight points through the first 6:07 of game action. Further, Boise State had committed six turnovers before the Wildcats even gave one away.
Whether or not the ferocity of Northwestern’s defense would appear was not entirely in question; after all, it’s been the anchor of the team its entire campaign, and defensive prowess appears to better carry over unlike, say, shooting. What was a welcome surprise to those donning purple and white facepaint, polos and ponchos was how efficiently NU’s offense played in the Round of 64.
As a team, the ‘Cats shot 49% from the field, their best mark since Feb. 19 against Iowa. Maybe not coincidentally, the 75 points accumulated was also the squad’s highest scoring output since that home trouncing of the Hawkeyes.
First-Team All-Big Ten guard Boo Buie continued to carry the freight for Collins’ O, tallying a game-high 22 points — only three shy of Bryant McIntosh’s program postseason record 25 six years earlier against Vanderbilt.
While few doubted Buie’s ability to score at will, attacking blind spots and finishing impressive layups through contact, a familiar question emerged: who else in white would contribute offensively?
The answer to that inquiry has fluctuated throughout 2022-23, but it’s typically been limited to only one other complement to Buie. In their biggest game of the year, however, the Wildcats saw multiple performers ascend.
Conference Defensive Player of the Year Chase Audige looked to regain both composure and confidence, scoring 20 points for the first time since Jan. 28. Audige shot 5-of-12 from the floor, adding three triples — including one with 6:59 left that doubled the Wildcats’ three-point lead and hushed opposing fans. Beyond that, Audige also netted six pivotal free throws in the final six minutes of the ballgame, helping to ensure the Broncos were never able to close the distance.
Joining Buie and Audige in sensational scoring was fellow backcourt member Ty Berry.
While Berry’s defensive effort and intensity have been lauded by coaches all year, his offense had lagged rather mightily since exploding for 26 points against Nebraska in late January. In another arena out west, Berry mimicked that performance, pouring in 13 points on only 5-of-7 shooting, including three triples.
On top of it all, Brooks Barnhizer made it seven consecutive games with double figures, reaching 10 points on a layup with 3:15 remaining — one which augmented Northwestern’s lead to 10 and effectively put the game away.
To Boise State’s credit, the Broncos remained resilient, not fading until the final few minutes of the game. Moreover, BSU collected 41 rebounds, including a whopping 20 of them offensively — something Collins recognizes the Wildcats must improve upon.
“We’ve got to do a better job blocking out whoever we face Saturday,” the head coach said. “This time of year, you can’t give up those second opportunities. That’s something we definitely gotta shore up heading into the next game.”
At the same time, NU never remained fazed despite a flurry of Boise State runs, preserving its advantage until it ballooned comfortably as the final buzzer sounded. In part, that was due to fan support, which helped alleviate “jitters” in a “home game” type of atmosphere, per Buie.
“I can’t talk enough about just the support,” Buie said. “To travel across the country and see so much purple, it’s just unbelievable. It means so much more than the people who came actually know.”
Wildcat supporters had reason to be elated by Thursday night: the team had just prevailed for only its second ever NCAA Tournament win and first since 2017. Beyond that, it was a rather well-rounded showing in which the ‘Cats seemed to prepare well and provide counter-punches to Bronco blows.
Yet, the road ahead in Sacramento is somewhat daunting for Northwestern and its fanbase. The ‘Cats will next face the No. 2-seed UCLA Bruins, who throttled UNC Asheville 86-53 only 30 minutes after NU’s victory.
The Bruins are certainly an apt challenge, having lost one game since the beginning of February — and one on a buzzer-beating three at that. With stars in Jaime Jazquez Jr. and Tyger Campbell, plus impressive freshman Amari Bailey, Mick Cronin’s team is one projected to make a deep run at a national championship in the coming weeks.
UCLA opened as eight-point favorites over the Wildcats in advance of Saturday evening’s Round of 32 matchup; that aligns with the Bruins having the best defense in the nation and an offense ranking 21st in efficiency, per KenPom.
But, if there’s one team a juggernaut does not want to face, it’s a poised, hungry opponent that plays stout defense and scores at the hands of multiple options. If Thursday’s game is any indication, Northwestern is capable of being just that — looking to play spoiler in a tournament known for unpredictability.
Yes, Bruin fans will presumably pack California’s Golden1 Center, much as they did in UCLA’s first game. Though they might be outnumbered, Wildcat fans will still be there, unwaveringly cheering on what may be the best team in school history. And, just maybe, their support will catalyze a scintillating Cinderella run to the Sweet 16 in Las Vegas.