NCAA Tournament: Northwestern’s magical season creates hope for bright future

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By Netta-Lee Lax

“Hail to purple! Hail to white! Hail to thee Northwestern.” – The Northwestern Alma Mater

Northwestern football head coach Pat Fitzgerald waited by the tunnel for his basketball counterpart, Chris Collins, to leave the court after a dramatic loss to No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. But as he extended his arm to let me pass by, he smiled at me.

In that moment, it felt like he was waiting for me. In that moment I could not hide my allegiance. In that moment as the Northwestern band played the alma mater, I was a Wildcat through and through and so was Fitz, as he’s known by the NU faithful. In that moment, it took a lot of will power not to just hug Fitz and let all of the pent up emotions of the past week out.

The very first story I covered as a student was an attempt by Northwestern’s athletic department to legitimize its men’s basketball program. In 2010, Northwestern hosted its inaugural, and only, Friday Night Hoops open practice at the student gymnasium known as SPAC. That night they held a make-shift dunk contest won by senior Mike Capocci, who barely made the rotation that season. The staff had not let future pros Drew Crawford or John Shurna partake, worried they might injure its best players. A few hours later, Snoop Dogg played a concert with the whole men’s basketball team on stage at the now “old” Welsh-Ryan Arena. Northwestern was trying to mimic programs like Duke, which fills Cameron Indoor when it holds open practices.

Instead, Northwestern emerged looking more like the knock-off barbie dolls at the dollar store with uneven eyes and immobile arms. It was not until last Sunday when Northwestern’s name was physically displayed on the bracket during the selection show that it sunk in that Northwestern now really has a legitimate men’s basketball program.

Over the past seven years as I’ve covered and followed Northwestern basketball, emotion has never been lacking.

When Michael “Juice” Thompson set a scoring record in the 2011 Big Ten Tournament, I could not comprehend a better feeling surrounding the team. The next season when the team collapsed in the same tournament and I entered their somber locker room, I thought the look on former walk-on Reggie Hearn’s face was the lowest I would ever see the team sink. Then this season happened. I was hesitant to buy in, worried that my masochistic basketball tendencies would drive me crazy.

But this was not the Northwestern I had come to know. This was not the Northwestern I had come to love and despise all at once. As Chris Collins noted in a press conference earlier this week, Northwestern fans were not sure how to handle this team.

“Is this the Northwestern we are used to seeing?” senior  Sanjay Lumpkin said, summing it up best. “This has been a magical season.”

It did not sink in that this was real. It did not sink for me until this morning when ESPN’s Mike Greenberg addressed a group of Northwestern alumni at a pep-rally.  As he pointed out that Northwestern was just one of six schools to win a bowl game and make it to the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament. It finally hit me. Northwestern is a legitimate Big Ten athletic school.

This week has been filled with a mix of deep grounding breaths, like the look senior Nate Taphorn had on his face when Northwestern went down 28-12 with just under four minutes left in the first half. It maybe began to sink in that this was his last game as a Wildcat when he crouched down along the sideline cheering on his team as they clawed their way back into the game against Gonzaga late in the second half.

This week has been filled with bizarre moments and strange calls. From the intentional foul by Vanderbilt’s Matthew Fisher-Davis when his team was up by one late in the game to the missed goal-tending call that led to a technical on Collins, there was rarely a dull moment.

At times during Saturday’s game against Gonzaga, there was a dreaded sense of familiarity as Northwestern played isolation offense and chucked up contested runners in the lane. But for the most part there was a newness that left most Northwestern fans, clad from head to toe in purple garb, looking at each other and saying, “Wow. This is awesome.”

Chris Collins’ motto is “Pound the Rock.” It comes from the writing of journalist Jacob Riis, who exposed the hardships of tenement life. The passage reads:

When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”

After Northwestern’s season-ending loss, redshirt sophomore Vic Law declared, “This is just the building block…this is just the beginning.”

The rock has just begun to show cracks, but it has not yet split. Next year the majority of Northwestern’s players will return to Evanston. The Wildcats will play away from campus as their home arena is renovated. Next year, as Collins explained, Northwestern will be “a different team.” But for Northwestern fans, for the students, for the alumni, for the staff and certainly for the players, this season will always stand alone. This team will forever be the first.

“We made history in a way that has never been done at this university, “ explained Law. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget this for the rest of my life.”

Lumpkin told me after the win against Vanderbilt, “This is why we came here.” Lumpkin was referring to himself and his teammates, both past and present, and their drive to make it to the big dance, but in a way it was also true for the Northwestern fans.

Moments like this are why we are sports fans. Moments like this are why we put ourselves through the pain of watching a team we’ve invested so much energy and emotion in fall apart. Moments like this are what we come for.

So tomorrow I will watch the video of Fitzgerald running into the locker room of a victorious Northwestern men’s basketball team again, and I will think of the elation and the pride. I will think of my alma mater and what it stands for. I will remember why I continue to call myself a Wildcat.

Alma mater, praise be thine, may thy name forever shine.” – Northwestern Alma Mater

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.