EVANSTON — Chris Collins called it "the biggest game any of our guys have played in their careers."
Might sound strange for a regular-season game on March 1, but he was right. Wednesday's tilt was a must-win for Northwestern.
They won the game and won it in about as amazing a fashion as you can imagine, Nathan Taphorn and Dererk Pardon reenacting Grant Hill's court-length pass to Christian Laettner to beat the buzzer and grab a 67-65 win over Michigan at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Coming in, the magnitude of this game for Northwestern was pretty gigantic. After starting Big Ten play with a 7-2 record, the Wildcats hit a miserable slide, their offense failing as they dropped five of seven. What looked like a team destined for its first-ever NCAA tournament was suddenly a team hoping to end up on the right side of the always-fickle tourney bubble.
A win against Michigan would likely punch its NCAA tournament ticket, but a win was no small task considering the crash-and-burn style stretch Northwestern was on, a stretch that reached its most disappointing level last Saturday night in Bloomington. Indiana won that game by a point after Northwestern committed a foul on a game-tying dunk with a few seconds left.
In other words, the pressure was on. But that's where Collins found his team's motivation. He flipped his season-long script of saying that he didn't care about the NCAA tournament or making program history. Instead he told his players exactly how much pressure there was and hoped they'd embrace it.
"There is a lot of pressure on these guys," Collins said after Wednesday's win. "I've talked all year about how we've tried to stay focused on what's in front of us and come up with other motivations. And really a couple days ago I decided to go completely away from that. After Indiana, I came in and I challenged them, and I told them there was pressure. It was the first time. I said, 'Guys, there is pressure. And anything good in life involves handling pressure and succeeding under pressure. So we're not going to avoid it anymore. We're not going to skirt around it, we're not going to not talk about it. There is pressure on us. We've got to go out and win if we want to do something great.' I don't know if that helped, but I thought it was time to be like that with them. I challenged them to be tougher mentally and to be stronger, to put 40 minutes together and get this done."
That's what happened on Wednesday, as Northwestern answered the bell that had been ringing increasingly louder over the past few weeks.
Scottie Lindsey, the team's leading scorer, sat down for four games with an illness and brought the offense screeching to a halt. Collins said Wednesday that stretch of four games "threw a wrench into our team," something that was plain to see while it was happening. The thing was, the Cats had yet to recover, sweating out a win over league-worst Rutgers while losing at Illinois and Indiana with Lindsey on the floor.
And so the pressure mounted. What was a dream season was quickly becoming a nightmare. So Collins changed direction in the regular season's final week. Drastic measures were required with his team precariously close to slipping out of the NCAA tournament's field of 68.
"If you want to do something good, you've got to meet pressure head on," Collins said. "I'd been skirting around it for a long time because I've been worried about my guys. I just have, human nature. What they've been going through the last couple weeks no team in America has gone through. Social media, articles — it's a lot on young guys. And you can say 'don't read it,' but that's how they live. They live on their phones, they live on Twitter, they live on Instagram. You're not going to avoid it.
"After Indiana, when we got back, the next day when we got together, I just challenged them. I said, 'If we want to do this, we've got to meet it head on. We've got to be tougher. We've got to do it together, we've got to have emotion, we've got to have energy.' And I was really proud of how we responded."
Northwestern's offense played well Wednesday, shooting 52.9 percent from the field on the game and dominating in the paint with 36 points there. Vic Law sprung back to life after a combined seven points in two games with a team-high 18 points.
But the energy, the emotion, the things Collins was looking for, that's what stood out Wednesday.
Northwestern players were pumping their fists and screaming with every possession. The fans in the stands were living and dying with them. When the students rushed the court after the wildest finish the home of the Wildcats has ever seen, it truly felt like the team's most important game of the season. And in this particular season, it felt like the most important game this program has ever played.
"This is the game that I committed here for," Law said. "When I committed and everybody said, 'Why are you choosing Northwestern? They have no culture, there's no basketball presence there.' And to play in a game like this that I don't think any Northwestern team has ever played in games so big as this, that really meant everything. I mean, how can you not be excited to play in this game?
"This is why we all came here. This is what I consider the biggest game of our season. ... We knew coming in that if we wanted to be different, this is the game we needed to take. We really needed to put our foot in the door. This is the game we had to stop the bleeding on. We weren't going to back away.
"So I think it's just fitting that coming off a loss like Indiana that we play Michigan, that we win. I think the best-ever moment in Welsh-Ryan Arena."
The suspense is now pretty much over. With a program-record 21 regular-season wins and a 10-7 Big Ten record heading into the final game of the regular season against Purdue, Northwestern should be safely in the NCAA tournament field, even after a couple weeks of sweating it out.
But that doesn't mean Northwestern's 2016-17 campaign is over. Yes, this is the best season in program history. But now the question becomes: How good can it get? There's a big shot at revenge coming to town on Sunday in the form of a Boilermakers team that beat these Cats by 21 back when Lindsey was sidelined. Then comes the Big Ten Tournament, a wide-open competition in which a conference championship could be Northwestern's for the taking. And then the program's first-ever NCAA tournament appearance. Will the Cats be happy to be there, or is a run in the cards?
After getting the monkey off their backs, as Pardon put it, on Wednesday and after doing it in such an improbable fashion, well, doesn't anything seem possible?
"We've got more games to play," Collins said. "What a great opportunity, we've got the league champs coming into our building on Sunday afternoon in the last game in the history of this arena. What a great opportunity to go out and let loose and play and compete and see what we can do."