NCAA Tournament: Northwestern developing new mentality as it enters foreign territory

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By Netta-Lee Lax

SALT LAKE CITY — Going into the 1995 PSAL High School Basketball Championship, one could argue that Stephon Marbury was under pressure. A family touted as New York City basketball royalty, three of the four Marbury boys had failed to bring Lincoln High School a city title. Stephon, considered to be one of the best young talents in the nation, had also failed in the years prior. Now in his senior season with 11 seconds left and his team up by just a point, Marbury stepped to the line. This was his last chance to win the coveted title. There he stood, just 18 years old, on the line at “The World’s Most Famous Arena”. Two dribbles and one deep breath, the future NBA All-Star looks to the hoop and sticks his tongue out as his fingers glide off the pebbled leather.  The tension in the air is palpable, even in watching the old film. Marbury would sink both free throws before jumping in the air ecstatically as he realizes that he had just done it – a Marbury boy had finally won a title for Lincoln. The pressure, for the moment, was released.

“I’d be hard-pressed to think there was anybody in the country that played with more pressure than us, the constant daily, will they make it, are they going to collapse, is this the Northwestern we’re always used to seeing?” – Northwestern coach Chris Collins

With just over four minutes left in Northwestern’s first NCAA Tournament appearance, Dererk Pardon stepped to the line.  Northwestern led Vanderbilt, 57-55, but as Pardon prepared to shoot his free throws, the pressure that Northwestern coach Chris Collins alluded to seemed to boil over. The raucous crowd simmered down and my palms started to sweat. I covered Northwestern basketball throughout my four years at the school and often feel personally invested in their success. To this point – in the entire history of the program – these two free throws made for the biggest moment in program history. I typed up my notes, my hands too shaky to scribble anything legible, “Still over 4 minutes left when Pardon hits a pair from the line, but you’d think this was Stephon Marbury about to clinch the city title at MSG.” This was, for Northwestern fans, a moment of legend.

“The last time out before my free throws, Coach said, it’s about toughness, that was in my head the whole time” recalled Pardon, “And before one of my free throws he said, I believe in you. And that gives you a lot of confidence.”

Deep breaths taken, eye on the prize, Pardon sunk them both. Over the course of the next four minutes, Northwestern would go to the marked line four more times. In the last two minutes of the game, the lead would change hands six times.  One might even argue, the pressure was mounting.

As Collins put it, “Your stomach is churning, because you want it so badly.”

The crowd grew quieter and quieter every time Vanderbilt took the lead and louder and louder each time Northwestern stole it back, but those free throws – that was where you could really sense how much this meant to this team, to this staff and to these fans.

They call them the Cardiac ‘Cats. Northwestern is better known for its failures in the athletic realm than its successes. The last time I covered the Wildcats at a major basketball tournament was the 2012 Big Ten Conference Tournament. An event marked by a first round meltdown that assured Northwestern’s all-time leading scorer would never burst the bubble and make it to the dance. It was the final game in a season filled with last minute collapses (Looking at you, Jared Sullinger). But the history of struggles on the hardwood can be traced back to the very first NCAA Final Four which was played on Northwestern’s Evanston campus. Yet until today, Northwestern was the only  power conference team to have not danced in March. The further you dig into Northwestern’s basketball history, the more heartbreak you find. From legitimate tragedy when former coach Ricky Byrdsong was murdered while walking with his two children, to unfortunate parts in historic events like Wilt Chamberlain scoring 52 points in his University of Kansas debut or as one article described it the “spanking” of Northwestern. Legendary coaches like Tex Winter (head coach from 1973-1978) have tried and failed (Winter finished with a 42-89 record) where Collins has finally succeeded. In the last five years, Northwestern has won two bowl games (having not won a single bowl game for 64 years prior to 2013) and now has at least one victory in the NCAA Tournament. This is foreign territory they’ve encountered. This is a new sort of Wildcat mentality.

This season Northwestern racked up the most wins in the 112 year history of the program and as March rolled in the ‘Cats all but secured a place in the big dance for the first time with an epic last-second win over the Michigan Wolverines. With less than two seconds left in regulation Nathan Taphorn inbounded a quarterback pass, throwing the ball the length of the court right into the hands of Pardon who laid it in for the Wildcat victory. That game, explained Collins, was a turning point for the team’s mentality.

“I’ve noticed ever since winning that Michigan game we’ve relaxed and got back to playing the way we were playing all year,” Collins said.

Nine days later the Wildcats again made program history when they won two games in the Big Ten Tournament for the first time. A few days after that they finally saw their name in the bracket, I “mean the watch party was a day we’ll never forget,” recalled Collins, “Because that was history. That’s a moment that will live with me and us forever, because that was doing something that’s never been done.”

Tonight was also something that had never been done before and the pressure was on.

“We are doing this for more people than just ourselves,” senior Sanjay Lumpkin said. “We are doing this for people like Billy McKinney, Jim Stack, Drew Crawford – all these older players that have played for this program. So many people have been a part of this.”

Pardon was a mere 52 percent from the line during the regular season and through the Big Ten Tournament, but he knocked down all six of his free throws in the final stretch of this game. He was infallible and unflappable.

“I was really proud of Dererk, especially” explained Collins, “He’s had his struggles at the line throughout his career. He works at it religiously every day. For him to walk up and make six in a row in the last [four minutes], I was really proud of him.”

Dribble, deep breath, swish.  The tension, for the moment, was released.