Big Ten

Taphorn to Pardon: How Northwestern got its own version of Grant Hill to Christian Laettner

Taphorn to Pardon: How Northwestern got its own version of Grant Hill to Christian Laettner

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."

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately


Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

Tough news out of Evanston this morning: Northwestern announced that running back Jeremy Larkin will retire immediately after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis.

Cervical stenois is the narrowing of the spinal canal in one's neck, according to Mayo Clinic. Larkin's condition is thankfully not life-threatening, though it does prevent him from continuing to participate in the game of football. 

"Football has been a lifelong passion and it has been a process to reconcile the fact I won't be on that field again, given I've played this game since I was five years old," Larkin said.

"I'm extremely appreciative of the Northwestern sports medicine and athletic training staffs for uncovering this condition, and for my coaches and the medical staff for always putting my health first.

"I came to this University to engage at the absolute highest level on the field and in the classroom, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to continue one of those while supporting my teammates from the sideline." 

Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald called the news "heartbreaking."

"This is heartbreaking because I see every day how much Jeremy loves the game, loves his teammates, and loves to compete," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "But this is the absolute best possible outcome for him.

"The discovery of this condition allowed Jeremy and his family to make an informed decision for his long-term health and well-being. For those of us who have known Jeremy Larkin since his high school days, his future is exceptionally bright. I can't wait to see the impact he makes in our world."

Larkin is a sophomore from Cincinnati. He finishes his Northwestern career with 156 carries for 849 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal


Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

Former University of Illinois tennis star Kevin Anderson completed a marathon upset against an all-time great on the highest stage of professional tennis.

Anderson came back from two sets down to beat Roger Federer in Wimbledon’s quarterfinals 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 13-11 on Wednesday morning. He will play in the semifinals of the tournament for the first time in his career.

As a native of South Africa, Anderson played three seasons with the Fighting Illini and won the NCAA doubles championship during the 2005-06 season as a sophomore. The 32-year-old was a three-time All-American in singles at Illinois.

Now, as the eighth ranked singles player on the ATP World Tour, Anderson is a force to be reckoned with at the professional level. He made it all the way to the US Open final in 2017.

The former Illini star will look to keep his recent success going when he represents Illinois in the semifinals of Wimbledon this Friday.