Years upon years, decades upon decades, had passed without Northwestern’s reaching the NCAA tournament. So when the Wildcats finally — finally — advanced this year, their coach, Chris Collins, shared a dose of perspective with his players.
“I mean, how many times in any of our lives do you get a chance to do something historical — that has never, ever been done?” Collins said.
For these Wildcats, the answer, now, is two. Because four days after they shed the ignominy of being one of only five original Division I teams never to have earned a berth in the field, Northwestern claimed its first victory.
Its players, coaches and graduates will remember the details for posterity. Not only the score, 68-66 over Vanderbilt, and the location, Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City, but also the six lead changes in the final 96 seconds, the 25 points poured in by Bryant McIntosh and the late implosion that cost Vanderbilt its best chance at victory.
The inexplicable closing sequence included the Commodores’ leading scorer, Matthew Fisher-Davis, committing an unnecessary late foul — with the Commodores up by 1 and about 14 seconds left — that McIntosh converted into two free throws, and then a deep 3-point attempt from Riley LaChance that clanged off the iron.
When the ball caromed out of bounds off a Vanderbilt player, the celebration raged not only in the stands — actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, cheering on her son, Charlie Hall, a Wildcats sophomore forward, and former NBA coach Doug Collins, father of Chris, were among those present — but especially back on campus in Evanston, Illinois.
Northwestern’s victory served as the most memorable moment from an early slate of games in which even the lone upset — 12th-seeded Middle Tennessee State over No. 5 Minnesota — was not really all that surprising. The higher seed prevailed in six consecutive games, including Florida’s 80-65 triumph over East Tennessee State, before Middle Tennessee’s Blue Raiders, a year after recording one of the biggest upsets in tournament history, upended the bracket again.
By rolling past Minnesota, 81-72, in the South Region, Middle Tennessee State bolstered the objective of its coach, Kermit Davis, who is trying to mold his team into a national program, in the image of teams like Butler, Gonzaga and Wichita State, which began as midmajor darlings before achieving full-fledged behemoth status.
The Blue Raiders shed their anonymity last year by ousting Michigan State, a No. 2 seed and tournament favorite, and in a stirring sequel Thursday they toppled a Big Ten entry for the second year in a row.
Just as predictable was Notre Dame’s preferred method for advancement.
The Fighting Irish eschew blowouts for stress, comfort for stress, and survived Thursday only because a 3-point attempt by Princeton’s Devin Cannady — who grew up in Indiana, a town over from Notre Dame’s campus in South Bend — clanged off the rim in a 60-58 loss. “I thought the shot was going in,” Cannady said.
It did not, and No. 5 Notre Dame — which in 2015 outlasted No. 14 Northeastern, and in 2016 overcame a 12-point halftime deficit against Michigan, a 6-point deficit against Stephen F. Austin with 95 seconds left and a 3-point deficit against Wisconsin with 25 seconds remaining — escaped once again. In the last two postseasons, those close games seemed to galvanize the Irish: Each year they advanced to the regional final.