The Northwestern Wildcats had plenty of emotions as they bowed out of their first NCAA Tournament. But the one that matters most? This is just a start.
The emotions for the end of a breakthrough season were still raw as the players began filing toward the locker room following the 69-63 loss to Gonzaga in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Saturday.
Chris Collins had gone ballistic on an official, getting a technical foul and, in some sense, costing his team a chance to complete a 21-point second-half comeback. Very clearly (unless you were sitting in the upper bowl right behind the basket and so obstructed from its view) a Gonzaga defender had blocked a shot by poking his hand through the cylinder.
The basket would have made it a three-point game, one possession late in the game and tantalizingly close to completing the impossible once again.
Collins was incensed and the technical foul he received made it a seven-point game. The task was that much tougher. And Bryant McItnosh and his team ran out of gas against a long and feisty Gonzaga team.
The headlines around the nation focused on that call and its effect on the strategy late in the game. It had an effect, Collins said. It shifted momentum as the Wildcats came so close to completing the comeback.
The reality is Northwestern was too sloppy and inconsistent in the first half. Trailing by 18 points at halftime and looking like the team might get run out of the gym was the reason the team lost. The Wildcats struggled to adjust to the Bulldogs’ length and speed on the perimeter. They fell behind and looked tight and pressured as they tried to get back into the game.
It did not come until the desperation seeped in during the second half. Northwestern had to make a slow climb back into the game, but with each stop, each dive on the floor and each dig, the team came back. The Wildcats made the top-seeded Bulldogs sweat.
Northwestern showed its program’s truest colors in that second half. The team was going to fight to the very end of the game. The Wildcats were not going to see this season end with a whimper, it was going to end with nothing left on the floor.
And so, while Northwestern gave itself plenty of reason to lose before that moment, the goaltend was something that mattered. It took the fight away from the Wildcats. They were not going to win or lose on their own play, shooting or mistakes. It was someone else’s. One they could not get back.
Nobody wanted to see this season end. And so it was angry to see its end at least partially taken out of their power. The Wildcats at least wanted the fair chance to win on their terms.
The anger was palpable for that reason.
Soon it gave into the reality and sadness of finality. Northwestern’s season was over. Its first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament was done. Another team would move on and the Wildcats would be done.
It was always going to be this way. Northwestern was not about to win the national championship. But this fan base and this team probably were not prepared for that final moment when it came.
What team really is? Even if they did not expect to do much more than to make the Tournament field.
The feeling started to seep in when Dererk Pardon fouled out. He received a hug from every member of the coaching staff on his way to the bench. Fans started chanting “Dererk Pardon” in appreciation of what he did — famously his lay-in against Michigan but more generally his strong contribution on the block and even in this game against Gonzaga’s group of big men.
It continued as Sanjay Lumpkin came off the floor for the last time. Then Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey and Vic Law. The Wildcats’ season ended with all five starters getting their standing ovation. Deservedly so for the history this group made.
After the game, Collins was sad this team’s season was over. The Wildcats played their best basketball at the end of the season. The run through the Big Ten Tournament and Thursday’s NCAA Tournament win and even the second half Saturday were all signs the team had found its mojo and were ready to make noise.
The Wildcats made noise. Northwestern is still the talk of the tournament one way or another — whether it be as the darling newcomers or the team that got robbed of an upset.
There is no guarantee this group will get back here. Sanjay Lumpkin was the heart and soul of the team. His leadership will be missed. And now everyone knows Northwestern can do this. How does a team handle those expectations? Do the Wildcats try to get too aggressive living in the shadow of this historic group?
Those might be questions for the offseason and before next season. For now, it was the appreciation and sadness of this team’s season ending.
After the team had done its press responsibilities, every player, still in uniform, came out of the locker room and into the arena bowl, climbing into the stands to greet their parents and fans. There was a special appreciation reserved for this team.
— Philip R-R (@RiseNU) March 19, 2017
That would be the last anyone would see of this team together in public. The Wildcats thanking those who supported them and generally still enjoying everything about each other, the family and this season.
Northwestern accomplished a lot.
And there is still more to do. That defiance and optimism were present too as Northwestern filed off the court after the game. Northwestern fans stood and cheered the team after the final buzzer for everything it had done.
There were bowed heads and gestures toward the crowd in appreciation.
And then there was freshman Barrett Benson thumping his chest and soaking in the love. Benson seemed ready to go again and get the next season started.
He and all other classes coming after him will no longer view it as acceptable to miss the NCAA Tournament. The feeling from this weekend in Salt Lake City was that Northwestern is here and here to stay.
With the Wildcats losing only Sanjay Lumpkin and Nathan Taphorn and gaining back Aaron Falzon and freshman Rapolas Ivanauskas, expectations will be high in Evanston.
Nothing is guaranteed. But Northwestern certainly should feel it has a Tournament-capable team in 2018. And all the pent-up frustration and rage that were present at the end of the game Saturday have some place to go — becoming a two-time Tournament participant and a Sweet Sixteen team in 2018.
Only time will tell if they get there. But Collins repeated what he said on Selection Sunday on Saturday: This is only the beginning.
Fans of the three other teams in the Salt Lake City pod complemented Northwestern fans on their way out the doors at Vivint Smart Home Arena on Saturday. Northwestern came to the city and took over it as a fan base and proved the team belonged on the court.
It is only the beginning for the program.