SALT LAKE CITY — Pat Fitzgerald was in the house, standing on his seat and leading a stadium-wide chant of "Let's go Cats!"
This building probably hadn't been that loud since Stockton and Malone. At least it hadn't been that purple.
Northwestern fans were out in full force for the program's first-ever NCAA tournament game, which ended up as the program's first-ever NCAA tournament win, a 68-66 defeat of Vanderbilt.
The victory advanced the Wildcats to the Round of 32, where they'll take on top-seeded Gonzaga on Saturday here in Utah.
It wasn't quite as easy as it looked when Fitzgerald was playing the program's ultimate cheerleader, when Northwestern grabbed a 15-point lead in the second half. Vanderbilt closed that big gap almost instantaneously and took a few late leads, but the Cats hit the requisite free throws down the stretch and barely pulled out the two-point win.
After Vandy took a 66-65 lead with 18 seconds left, a Commodore incredulously fouled Bryant McIntosh and sent him to the free-throw line to get the lead back for the Cats. Vandy missed a go-ahead 3-point try at the other end, and Northwestern sweated out the win.
McIntosh was sensational, scoring a game-high 25 points. He got help from big man Dererk Pardon, who scored 14 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. Pardon hit six clutch free throws down the stretch. Scottie Lindsey also scored in double figures with 14 points.
If Northwestern was nervous playing in its first-ever NCAA tournament game, it sure didn't look like it early. The Cats started out real well, hitting six of their first 10 shots — and getting seven early points from McIntosh — as the Commodores couldn't do a thing offensively, making just three of their first 13 shots and at one point going more than four minutes without a point.
Northwestern had a couple nine-point leads in the early going, but Vandy kept chipping away, getting a few 3-pointers and bunching points together to get the lead to three, later two and later one. But Lindsey hit a couple big 3s to turn one-possession gaps into two-possession gaps. Northwestern closed the half on a 9-3 spurt to pull away from a one-point lead, getting McIntosh's third 3-pointer of the first half and four straight from Lindsey.
Northwestern shot 56 percent from the field over the first 20 minutes, with McIntosh and Lindsey combining for 25 points. The team went 5-for-7 from 3-point range. The Cats also had a 16-10 edge in points in the paint. Vandy scored 11 points off eight Northwestern turnovers, though the Commodores were a frigid 34.6 percent from the field.
The Cats got a couple McIntosh buckets to start the second half and take their lead to double digits for the first time on the game. Northwestern actually looked primed to run away with the game and hide when Nathan Taphorn buried a 3-pointer off Gavin Skelly's missed free throw, cranking the Cats' lead up to 15 with under 14 minutes to play. But that lead disappeared in a hurry, as Vandy answered with 12 straight points to get within three.
Northwestern created a tiny amount of breathing room from there, but Vandy quickly closed that gap, too, and was within two inside of five minutes to play thank to another long-distance 3. A couple Pardon free throws got the lead back to five, but with under three minutes to go, Lindsey was whistled for a foul on a 3-point shot, giving Vandy three free throws to get within a point. Pardon countered with two more free throws, and after Vandy split a pair at the other end, the Commodores splashed in a go-ahead triple inside of a minute and a half to play.
McIntosh answered with a floater that snatched the advantage back for the Cats, but after Vic Law missed the front end of a 1-and-1 that could've extended the lead, Vandy cashed in with a go-ahead layup. The game was on Pardon's shoulders at the free-throw line on the next trip down the floor, and he hit a pair to put Northwestern back in front. But Vandy again answered with a go-ahead bucket, only to foul McIntosh after he received the inbounds pass. McIntosh hit two free throws to give Northwestern a one-point lead, and Vandy missed a go-ahead 3-point try at the other end, the Cats grabbing the win.
The victory was the fifth since 1985 for a first-time tournament team playing as a No. 10 seed or better. Northwestern will take on top-seeded Gonzaga on Saturday for a shot at a trip to the Sweet Sixteen.