It looks like Northwestern should start lacing up its dancing shoes.
It's hard to imagine the Cats won't be going to the NCAA tournament for the first time ever after scoring a signature 66-59 win over the seventh-ranked Wisconsin Badgers on Sunday night in Madison.
The win was by far Northwestern's biggest of the season and the team's first over a team in the top half of the Big Ten standings. It was just the second time the Cats won at the Kohl Center in Madison.
With leading scorer Scottie Lindsey again sitting out, the third straight game the junior guard missed, Northwestern's defense answered the bell, shutting down Ethan Happ, one of the best players in the conference, to such a degree that Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard kept his star sophomore on the bench for a long stretch in the second half. Happ — who entered Sunday's game ranking in the top 10 in the league in numerous statistical categories, including scoring, rebounding, field-goal percentage, steals and blocked shots — finished with just nine points and seven rebounds.
Meanwhile, Bryant McIntosh shone for the Cats with Lindsey out of commission. The junior point guard scored 25 points and wasn't too far off from a triple-double with seven rebounds and seven assists. Vic Law and Dererk Pardon each scored 11 points for Northwestern.
Wisconsin was in control early, but as has happened frequently throughout conference play, the Badgers' offensive production fell off a cliff midway through the opening 20 minutes. Wisconsin led 19-12 at one point, but Northwestern cranked up the offense. The Cats reeled off a 16-0 run and outscored the Badgers by a 19-3 margin over the first half's final seven and a half minutes.
The 3-pointers started falling, Northwestern getting two apiece from Law and Nathan Taphorn in the first half, but the Cats' defense contributed just as much to the scoring disparity, with Wisconsin turning the ball over eight times in the opening 20 minutes, surprising for a team that averaged just 11 a game coming in. Northwestern scored nine first-half points off turnovers.
But Northwestern's nine-point halftime lead didn't last long after Wisconsin erased it with a 10-0 run to start the second half. The Cats, despite starting 0-for-9 from the field after halftime, did punch back, scoring eight straight from there to reclaim their advantage, getting a Law 3 and a rim-rocking dunk from Pardon in the process. At one point, Northwestern had outscored Wisconsin 16-6 following the Badgers' 10-point run.
Northwestern matched its nine-point advantage before the teams started trading buckets down the stretch. A Sanjay Lumpkin triple boosted a four-point Cats edge to a seven-point one, only to be answered by a Nigel Hayes bucket, which was answered by a McIntosh basket, keeping the lead at seven with three and a half minutes to play. The Cats' defense stayed on lockdown over the final few minutes, allowing buckets from McIntosh and Lumpkin to stretch the lead to a game-high 10 points with a minute to go. The Badgers made one last push with some timely free throws, slicing the gap down to five after just a handful of seconds, but McIntosh hit four free throws of his own and found Lumpkin for a breakaway dunk to seal the game.
The Cats held the Badgers to 38-percent shooting on the night and forced 12 turnovers, which yielded 16 points. Wisconsin outscored Northwestern in bench points by a 14-4 margin, but with Happ smothered, it was the Cats who owned the paint scoring, 26-12.
The win was monumental for a Northwestern team that now looks all but guaranteed to reach the Big Dance for the first time in program history. Entering the game, the Cats had a fine resume and looked to be in pretty good shape anyway, but finally earning a signature win should clinch things. Prior to Sunday, the Cats' best win of the season came against Dayton. Now they've knocked off a top-10 team on the road.
Not a bad way to stop a two-game slide that featured losses at Purdue and at home against lowly Illinois. Northwestern sits at 19-6 overall and 8-4 in conference play and faces off against a ranked Maryland team on Wednesday in Evanston.
The loss stopped an eight-game winning streak for Wisconsin, and it was just the second time the Badgers have lost since Thanksgiving. They boasts a 21-4 overall record and a 10-2 mark in conference play. Wisconsin's next game comes Thursday at Michigan.