The Northwestern Wildcats took over Salt Lake City and made themselves right at home in their first NCAA Tournament game.
Northwestern’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament is not about what happened on the court — not completely.
The Wildcats were more than game, taking as much as a 15-point lead in the second half. They were the dominant team, controlling the the game seemingly from the tip. Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew lauded the team’s physicality afterward.
Northwestern not only played the game, but played like it belonged.
So did Vanderbilt. The Commodores were advertised as a three-point shooting team and proved every bit of that. An 11-0 run behind the 3-point shooting from fireballer Matthew Fisher-Davis made the game tight.
It made it more than tight, it pushed Vanderbilt into the lead late and forced Northwestern into a back-and-forth game. The Wildcats were going to get to experience all the emotions of a NCAA Tournament game in their first appearance in the tournament.
And, yes, Northwestern advanced thanks to a puzzling foul from Fisher-Davis, giving Bryant McIntosh a take foul with his team up one and less than 30 seconds to play. The Wildcats frittered away their lead, unable to get shots consistently and got bailed out.
Thus is the madness of March. And Northwestern fans learned it firsthand for the first time. They felt the agony of uncertainty and the ecstasy of victory.
Survive and advance. Give up the game on free throws. Win the game on free throws. Get beat at the buzzer. Survive at the buzzer. All of it was wrapped into one.
But as the team and its fans descended upon Salt Lake City, there was also another unmistakable feeling. A feeling of how special this first trip to the NCAA Tournament is. And, more importantly, how at home everyone seems to be in this setting.
Salt Lake City is some 1,400 miles from Evanston, Illinois. But with the amount of purple that descended upon Vivint Smart Home Arena and the downtown area, it is unmistakably comfortable for everyone.
Northwestern packed the arena with its fans ready to witness history. The TBS broadcasters noted how it felt and sounded like a Northwestern home game — especially considering the dearth of Vanderbilt fans around. The players noticed it too on the court.
That feeling, though, permeated all of downtown Salt Lake City. Northwestern fans have taken over the city.
It did not matter if it was a Wednesday night bar packed with a hundred or so fans wearing purple. Or an alumni association tailgate teeming with purple-decked followers. Or a hastily planned post-party at another bar. Everyone greeted each other with “Go Cats!”
That is unusual for Northwestern. The rest of the Big Ten knows how quickly and easily opposing fans can pack that stadium. That is pretty much Northwestern’s reputation as a home team is giving up its home-court advantage.
This year has been different once fans got a whiff of the Tournament. And now that the Tournament is finally here, fans turned out in droves. It did not matter that this was not Evanston and they were not playing at Welsh-Ryan Arena, Northwestern had found a home in its first NCAA Tournament game.
It gave the team an added energy boost. Each Vanderbilt run was met with a critical play and a loud roar from the purple faithful all over the arena.
Northwestern played loose much of the afternoon. The team buried big shots and moved the ball. It closed out and held off Vanderbilt’s 3-point shooting. The Wildcats did not play like a Tournament novice.
Northwestern may have been playing with house money for some time. Since the Michigan win that seemingly clinched Northwestern’s place in the tournament, the team has played with a looseness and confidence that has been so rare in Northwestern’s history.
Even late in Thursday’s Tournament win, it felt like Northwestern was going to answer back. The team was going to have the answer.
Perhaps it was fate Vanderbilt made the play to erase any doubt, sending Bryant McIntosh to the line for his 24th and 25th point in this game. Perhaps Northwestern would have answered and won it anyway.
The Wildcats belonged on the floor. They belong in the second round.
And their fans get to revel in the victory in what is now seemingly a second home in Salt Lake City. Call it Evanston West for now.
Call it Evanston West, for now. The Wildcats certainly have made themselves at home.