Big Ten

Welcome to the Madness: How Northwestern won a quintessential NCAA tournament game

Welcome to the Madness: How Northwestern won a quintessential NCAA tournament game

SALT LAKE CITY — Northwestern, meet March Madness. Or maybe it's March Madness that needed the introduction to the Wildcats.

Playing in its first-ever NCAA tournament game, Northwestern edged Vanderbilt in the kind of game this tournament and this month manufacture with such incredible frequency.

A late run, a back-and-forth finish, go-ahead buckets and game-tying free throws and one crazy, inexplicable play. It might have been the Cats' first, but it was one of those quintessential NCAA tournament games.

"Obviously it's nerve-wracking in a game like this, where you feel like your whole season is dependent on this game," Vic Law said after the game. "To pull the game out down the stretch, it's almost better than getting called to be in the tournament."

And you didn't think anything could top that feeling, when Welsh-Ryan Arena exploded with joy just a few days ago after it was announced that Northwestern would be dancing for the first time ever. But Thursday's 68-66 victory did just that, matching up with the Cats' stated goal this week of not just settling to be invited to the Dance but to keep on dancing.

Northwestern momentarily looked like it would cruise to a win when a Nathan Taphorn triple made it a 15-point lead with under 14 minutes to play. But Vandy rattled off 12 straight from there to get things right back in the danger zone and stayed extremely close until finally taking the lead on a 3-pointer with 96 seconds to play.

The last minute and a half looked like a tennis match with each team taking turns taking a lead. Bryant McIntosh got a big bucket to put Northwestern back in front (two of his game-high 25 points), then Vandy matched with a layup. Then Dererk Pardon hit two free throws to tie the game and give the Cats the lead, then another Commodores layup to retake the lead with 18 seconds left.

That's when the Madness struck, Vandy's Matthew Fisher-Davis committing an unbelievable foul, not realizing his team was in front and sending McIntosh to the free-throw line. McIntosh knocked down two shots, tying the game and then taking a lead. Vandy missed at the other end, giving Northwestern one of those insane March victories.

"You kind of know in March the games are going to come down to the last two minutes," McIntosh said. "It's all about executing and being tough and making winning plays. Not shocked that it came down to that. I would've liked to keep our 15-point lead and keep a little bit of a cushion, but that's part of it. Good teams are going to make a run, and we were able to make enough plays to win the game."

Certainly, though, even getting a little help from Fisher-Davis' mistake, the Cats fought through to the finish in this one. Watching that big lead disappear as one of the country's best 3-point shooting teams started knocking down eye-popping triples, Northwestern could've felt shell-shocked, could've wilted.

Instead, drawing inspiration from a season-long motto, the Cats stood tall as Chris Collins busted out the marker and whiteboard.

"Every year before we start the season, I always ask the guys and the leadership of the team what they want to say to break every huddle. Figure out a word. I don’t care what it is, different people say different things. And this team chose the word toughness," Collins said. "So every huddle that we've had all year long when we come together, every timeout, every practice, every huddle, we always break it with 'toughness.' And when there was three minutes left in the game and it was a one-point game, I just wrote that word on the board. I said, 'Listen, it's been our word all year, and if we want to win on this stage, that’s what it's going to require on both ends.' We had to be tough to win.

"I wrote toughness and circled it. I said, 'This is the strategy right now. This has been our word all year, and this is what it's going to take to finish this game off.'"

And those who watched it — including the approximately a billion Northwestern fans packing Vivint Smart Home Arena, making the place look as purple as it did during the Utah Jazz's John Stockton-Karl Malone glory days — know the Cats gutted this one out. McIntosh kept putting up one big shot after another, the defense locked down a dangerous Vandy team to the tune of 38.2-percent shooting on the day, and Pardon, who shot 51.7 percent from the free-throw line this season, knocked down six huge free throws in the second half.

"That's what this game's about: toughness," McIntosh said. "Making a defensive stand, getting a defensive rebound, stepping up to the free-throw line and knocking free throws down. Dererk Pardon did a tremendous job doing that. Just tremendous toughness all night to be able to win this game."

And so now it's on to another new high for this program that seems to be ascending the college-basketball mountain at a rapid pace.

Northwestern will take on No. 1 seed Gonzaga in Saturday's second-round game, another huge test for the Cats. Just 17 times has a No. 1 seed lost to the winner of the 8-9 game. A win would advance Northwestern to the Sweet Sixteen.

But this team hasn't been shy about its stated goals this season, to be different. It hasn't been shy about taking on the biggest of challenges. It hasn't been shy about absolutely anything.

Since setting down in Salt Lake City the Cats have made it clear that they want to stay in this tournament for a little while. With one game down, we're about to find out just how long Northwestern's stay will last.

"It's what we came here to do. We wanted to win games," McIntosh said. "We weren't satisfied with just making the tournament. I think that's why this group is different. The guys in this locker room, it's just a special group and I'm happy I can be a part of it."

Illini play freshman quarterback Cam Thomas for first time, but still fall at Minnesota

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USA TODAY

Illini play freshman quarterback Cam Thomas for first time, but still fall at Minnesota

While Saturday's trip to the Twin Cities featured some more of the same for the Fighting Illini, it marked important step in Lovie Smith's rebuilding project.

Freshman quarterback Cam Thomas, a Marian Catholic product, saw action for the first time in his collegiate career, Smith busting out a new option at the game's most important position. Thomas threw a nasty pick six, but he did lead Illinois in rushing in a 24-17 loss at Minnesota.

Thomas only made four throws, completing two of them and landing a third in the hands of a Minnesota defender, but his play injected a bit of excitement into what's looking like another dreadful season of Illinois football, with Smith's team falling to 2-5 through the first seven games of his second season at the helm of the program. Thomas mostly starred with his feet Saturday, rushing for a team-high 79 yards in the defeat.

His first appearance came following the first of the Illinois' defense's three takeaways. Thomas ran for a nine-yard gain on his first carry, and the Illini tied the game with a touchdown on the next play. Thomas was interchanged with starting quarterback Jeff George Jr. from there on out.

While the Illini defense kept the Gophers at bay for much of the day thanks to those three takeaways, P.J. Fleck's team had no trouble racking up rushing yardage, finishing with a whopping 292 rushing yards. Minnesota engineered a 12-play, 75-yard drive in the fourth quarter exclusively running the ball to break a 10-all tie and go up 17-10.

Thomas threw a pick six on the very next play from scrimmage, sending the Gophers up 24-10 to effectively seal the deal. George led an Illinois touchdown drive on the next possession, but the Illini couldn't make up the suddenly big gap in the limited amount of time.

Illinois finished with only 282 yards of offense. George was 18-for-23 for 128 yards and a touchdown. Ra'Von Bonner carried the ball 18 times for 57 yards and a touchdown.

The defeat dropped the Illini to 2-5 on the season and 0-4 in conference play. One of just two teams without a Big Ten win (Indiana is the other), Illinois faces off against a top-10 Wisconsin team next weekend.

Big play from Justin Jackson sets up Northwestern's overtime win over Iowa

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USA TODAY

Big play from Justin Jackson sets up Northwestern's overtime win over Iowa

Justin Jackson is one of the top 10 rushers in Big Ten history for a reason: He's very, very good at this football thing.

But it was a big play Jackson made not as a ball-carrier but as a pass-catcher Saturday that set up Northwestern's second straight win, a 17-10 takedown of Iowa in Evanston.

Jackson took a pass from quarterback Clayton Thorson and went all the way down to the 1-yard line, picking up 23 yards and shedding multiple tacklers on the game's biggest play.

Two plays later, Thorson plunged in for the go-ahead score. Iowa failed on a fourth-down conversion attempt on its ensuing overtime possession, ending it with a dropped pass that finished the game.

The game's result rapidly altered the social-media conversation, which moments prior had been mighty critical of Pat Fitzgerald, who made a controversial decision at the end of regulation.

Iowa tied the game at 10 on a field goal inside of two minutes to play, forced to kick after a false start was committed on fourth and 1. Fitzgerald had a minute and a half and two timeouts to try to get his own team into field-goal range for a shot at a win but instead ran the clock out and headed to overtime.

Fitzgerald explained after the game that the blustery wind at Ryan Field played a big role in that decision, plus his team had a long way to go against an Iowa defense that played well throughout the game.

Northwestern's defense was very strong, too, holding Iowa to 312 total yards, only 89 of which came on the ground. Hawkeyes quarterback Nathan Stanley was also picked off in the second half for the game's only turnover.

Jackson finished with 93 rushing yards and 38 receiving yards. Thorson was 21-for-36 passing the ball for 192 yards. Backup running back Jeremy Larkin scored the Wildcats' lone regulation touchdown.

The win improved Northwestern to 4-3 on the season and 2-2 in Big Ten play. After a 2-3 start, the Cats have won back-to-back games and take on a ranked Michigan State team next weekend.