EVANSTON — Maybe the stakes weren't as high as the play it looked like. But this will go down as perhaps the best and biggest play in this particular program's history.
It's hard to watch Nathan Taphorn's court-length pass and Dererk Pardon's buzzer-beating bucket from Wednesday night's 67-65 win over Michigan and not think about the most famous play in college hoops history: Christian Laettner's game-winner off Grant Hill's full-court pass to push Duke past Kentucky in the 1992 NCAA tournament.
Certainly, given that this wasn't a Duke-Kentucky tilt in the Elite Eight but rather a Northwestern-Michigan regular-season battle on March 1, this won't gain equal fame in the history of the sport. But in the minds of Wildcats fans — who erupted and rushed the court when Pardon's basket went through — Wednesday's play will loom larger in their collective memory because it was the basket that seems to have sent their Cats dancing for the first time ever.
The play itself, drawn up by Northwestern assistant coach Brian James, was a last-ditch effort with the game tied at 65, one head coach Chris Collins and a couple players admitted they'd never practiced before. After Michigan's Zak Irvin missed a potentially game-winning 3, Northwestern took over with 1.7 seconds left. A couple timeouts followed, one by each team, before Taphorn unleashed a quarterback-style throw almost everyone thought was going to fly out of bounds under the hoop.
"My initial instinct, to be honest, was I thought he threw it too long," Collins said. "So I was a little worried that it was going to air mail and that they were going to get the ball out of bounds under because the way it was sailing, I said, 'Oh no, not tonight.' And it ended up being like a perfect pass. And it just happened so quick: Dererk got it, he laid it in."
"I thought it was long. I thought it was going out of bounds at first," Pardon said. "But then, as I caught it, I'm like, the rim is right there. So I just turned around and shot the layup."
Collins was a Duke Blue Devil himself and joined Mike Krzyzewski's program the season after Laettner's famed shot. Collins admitted Wednesday that he didn't connect the two plays until after Wednesday's happened — meaning he wasn't trying to etch Taphorn and Pardon into the same college basketball lore as Hill and Laettner — but he did mention another legendary college basketball moment in describing his post-play reaction.
"I kind of felt like I was Jimmy V back in '83," Collins said, describing Jim Valvano's reaction after his North Carolina State team won the national championship that year. "I didn't know, I was looking around, I didn't have anyone to hug. And then they said we won, so that was a good thing."
The reaction was almost as spectacular as the play itself. The players mobbed Pardon before the group was mobbed by students rushing the floor at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
The moment was a perfect illustration of how far this program's come under Collins. Before his arrival and during his building years, the student presence at Northwestern home games wasn't always something to brag about. But it sure was Wednesday, the students were just one part of a raucous crowd in Evanston.
It's also the final week of this arena looking like it looks. After Sunday's regular-season finale against Purdue, Welsh-Ryan Arena will undergo a complete renovation.
"When I shot the ball and the buzzer went off, I didn't know what I was doing. I just ran," Pardon said. "And then all of a sudden I felt Scottie grab me, and all of a sudden I was on the ground. And after that it's just a blur."
"As soon as Dererk caught it I was already jumping, doing cartwheels waiting on him at half court," Vic Law said. "And when that ball went in, whether there was time on the clock or not, I ran and tackled Dererk."
"I will take blame for this: I was actually the guy that took Dererk down," Taphorn said. "I gave Dererk the biggest hug and I just felt a big rush behind us, and I was just like, 'Why not?' We were down there for a couple minutes before we heard, 'Get off! Get off! We're getting crushed!'"
The play was redemptive in multiple ways. Giving the Cats the win, it stopped a free fall that saw Northwestern lose five of its previous seven games, a slide that took them from seeming lock status in the NCAA tournament field to a trip toward the bubble. Now the Cats are back in the lock column after this massive victory.
But it was redemptive for Taphorn, too. The senior played a role in a couple of the team's more disappointing losses over the past two seasons. Last year, he mentioned after Wednesday's game, he was the one who allowed Duncan Robinson to get open and hit a key shot in Michigan's Big Ten Tournament win over Northwestern. And earlier this season, Taphorn was to blame for the screwed-up inbounds play that resulted in a loss to Notre Dame.
Wednesday night, though, Taphorn's inbounds play went perfectly.
"That goes through my mind just about every day," he said when asked about the play against Notre Dame. "That goes through my mind, and when we lost to Michigan last year in the Big Ten Tournament. I went under a screen and Duncan Robinson hit a 3, and that's how we lost the game. ... That will always resonate with me. So will this and so will the Notre Dame game.
"But this one will definitely top those two."