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."