Northwestern’s dream season ended with the first trip to the NCAA tournament in school history. But it wasn’t always a smooth ride, as the Wildcats and their fans experienced quite a few bumps along the way.
WildcatReport looks back on the major events – the highlights and lowlights – of a historic season that will never be forgotten in Evanston.
The first test: Butler 70 Northwestern 68, Nov. 16, 2016
Northwestern failed its first test of the season at Butler. With the game on the line and less than a minute left, Northwestern put the ball in the hands of star point guard Bryant McIntosh. Butler’s Kamar Baldwin stole the ball from him. With the game on the line and five seconds left, Butler put the ball in the hands of freshman point guard Baldwin. He hit a jumper from the wing with .5 on the clock to give the Bulldogs a heart-stopping win and the Wildcats a painful first loss.
The false milestone: Northwestern 77 Texas 58, Nov. 21
Northwestern got what many thought was a signature victory over No. 22 Texas at the Legends Class in Brooklyn. The Wildcats opened and closed the first half with big runs and then dominated the second half for a surprisingly easy beatdown. The win, however, turned out to be a dud as Texas finished in the Big 12 basement at 11-22 (4-14).
The second letdown: Notre Dame 70 Northwestern 66, Nov. 22
One night after a win that had the media buzzing, the Wildcats again failed to close out a tight game and let a potential resume-building win slip through their fingers. Notre Dame finished with a 12-2 run to nip the Wildcats in the final of the Legends Classic in Brooklyn. In crunch time, Nate Taphorn had two big gaffes that would haunt him all season: a throw-in that sailed over everyone’s head and a blocking call on Matt Farrell’s drive to the basket on what turned out to be the game-winner. After two late collapses, fans were wondering if these were the “same old Wildcats.”
The sneaky one: Northwestern 65 Wake Forest 58, Nov. 28
This time, McIntosh wouldn’t let his team lose, scoring 19 of his game-high 23 points in the second half to beat Wake Forest at home in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. It didn’t seem like that big a deal at the time, but the Deacons would up as a tournament team. BMac hit his last eight shots from the floor and scored eight straight points for the Wildcats after the game was tied at 53 with 3:24 left. “It’s about time,” he cracked.
The bad break: Pardon undergoes surgery on broken hand, Dec. 1
Northwestern’s win over Wake Forest turned out to be costly as center Dererk Pardon broke his hand during the contest – and then finished the game. Pardon had surgery three days later and would eventually miss eight games. The Wildcats won seven of those games, though fans were still wondering if the program was cursed.
The great escape: Northwestern 67 Dayton 64, Dec. 17
Northwestern notched a tournament-building win over Dayton at the sparsely attended United Center, but it sure didn’t feel like one. The Wildcats played a nearly flawless first half to build a seemingly insurmountable 40-17 lead, and then almost blew it before making just enough plays to sweat out a win over the Flyers, who eventually made the Dance.
The stopper: Northwestern 74 Nebraska 66, Jan. 8, 2017
Northwestern, which had lost two straight to Michigan State and Minnesota to fall to 1-2 in Big Ten play, went on the road and came from behind in the second half to notch an important win at Nebraska, as . The Huskers had won their first three Big Ten games.
The blowout: Northwestern 89 Iowa 54, Jan. 15
Northwestern turned in its most dominant performance of the season in a surprising 35-point win over the Hawkeyes. The Wildcats led from buzzer to buzzer in a game that may not have been as close as the lopsided score indicated. Northwestern shot 60 percent for the game and 46 percent from beyond the arc. The Wildcats led in rebounding 39-24, on points in the paint 42-18, on points off turnovers 16-6, and on fast break points 18-9. The Wildcats also had 29 assists on their 37 baskets.
The history eraser: Northwestern 74 Ohio State 72, Jan. 22
The Wildcats made history in this one, hitting 11 of 12 free throws down the stretch to beat Ohio State in Columbus for the first time since 1977. It wasn’t a particularly pretty win, but it erased 40 years of the wrong kind of history and gave the road-warrior Wildcats their fourth Big Ten road win.
The apex? Northwestern 68 Indiana 55, Jan. 29
Northwestern made more history against Indiana, notching its first six-game Big Ten winning streak since 1932-33 in an easy win over a conference blue blood in a packed Welsh-Ryan Arena. The win gave the Wildcats a 7-2 Big Ten mark and had some folks wondering if the Wildcats might contend for a Big Ten title. That dream crumbled quickly.
The illness: Lindsey comes down with mono, Jan. 30
Shortly after the win over Indiana, Northwestern announced that shooting guard Lindsey would miss the Purdue game on Feb. 1 with an undisclosed illness. It turned out to be mononucleosis and Lindsey would miss four games. The Wildcats lost three of them as their NCAA hopes took a direct hit.
The big one: Northwestern 66 Wisconsin 59, Feb. 12
Northwestern stunned then-No. 7 Wisconsin in Madison for what we thought at the time was perhaps the biggest win in school history. McIntosh was brilliant, with 25 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists to give the Wildcats their first win over a Top 10 team since 2010 and second at the Kohl Center in 15 tries. The Cats took control with a 22-0 run to end the first half and looked to be one or two Ws away from a sure tournament invitation.
The panic: Illinois 66 Northwestern 50, Feb. 21
The Wildcats beat Rutgers to get their school-record-tying 20th win but figured to need one more to secure an NCAA berth. This was their best chance. But Northwestern went down to Champaign and got smoked by the red-hot Illini in one of the worst performances of the season. What’s more, it meant that in-state rival Illinois swept the season series from the Wildcats.
The collapse: Indiana 63 Northwestern 62, Feb. 25
Northwestern had a 7-point lead with 1:33 left when the roof caved in. Indiana scored the last eight points of the game, the decisive one coming on a free throw by Thomas Bryant to complete a 3-point play with 2.6 seconds left, to hand the Wildcats their third defeat in four games. Many thought the Wildcats still needed one more win to go dancing, even if most experts were saying they had already done enough. Still, this was probably the low point of the season, capping a February in which the Wildcats won just two games in seven tries.
The play: Northwestern 67 Michigan 65, March 1
It was the biggest play of the biggest win in the biggest season in Northwestern history. By now you’ve seen it a thousand times: Taphorn, standing under his own basket with 1.7 seconds left, threw a 92-foot pass to Pardon, who banked home the game-winner as the buzzer sounded. Then, all hell broke loose in Welsh-Ryan Arena in a celebration befitting the death of a 78-year-old monkey. The Wildcats were going dancing. It also gave NU a record-setting 21st win and 10th in Big Ten play to cinch a winning conference mark for the first time since 1967-68.
The big stage: Purdue 69 Northwestern 65, March 5
Northwestern lost its season-finale against the Big Ten champions, but the story was the game atmosphere at Welsh-Ryan, which was hosting its last game before a complete renovation. CBS Sports was in town to do the game, and broadcaster Jim Nantz said that the game produced the loudest readings their audio team had ever recorded. He also called it one of the top five atmospheres he’s ever experienced, in any sport. Northwestern had arrived on the national scene and closed the regular season with a record of 21-10 (10-8 Big Ten).
The confidence builder: Northwestern 72 Maryland 64, March 10
A night after beating Rutgers in the first round, Northwestern won a second-round game and advanced to the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament for the first time in history. The Wildcats went on 20-4 and 20-2 scoring runs to notch a win in what was essentially a home game in Washington D.C. for the NCAA-bound Terps. The Wildcats lost their semifinal game to Wisconsin, but their work was already done.
The selection: Northwestern is invited to the Big Dance, March 12
At approximately 5:03 Central time, Greg Gumbel of CBS Sports said the magic word that many Wildcat fans had been waiting to hear their entire lives: “Northwestern.” The north stands at Welsh-Ryan were filled with fans who erupted when the Wildcats’ No. 8 seed in the West Region was announced, and it was all captured live on the NCAA Selection Show. Northwestern was the darling of the Dance.
The first: Northwestern 68 Vanderbilt 66, March 16
Northwestern got its money’s worth out of its first NCAA Tournament game, in a nail-biter that had enough drama to make up for the 78 tournaments that went on without them. The Wildcats built a 15-point second-half lead and then lost it, setting up a wild stretch run that saw six lead changes in the last 1:36. But when the smoke cleared, Northwestern emerged with a win over ninth-seeded Vanderbilt in its first-ever game in the Big Dance, in front of a pro-Purple crowd at Welsh-Ryan West in Salt Lake City. It was Northwestern’s 24th win of the season.
The last stand: Gonzaga 79 Northwestern 73, March 18
Northwestern’s dream season came to an end in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but the Wildcats didn’t go down without a fight. After looking outclassed in the first half, Northwestern came roaring back from a 21-point, second-half deficit to cut No. 1-seed Gonzaga’s advantage to 5 points with less than five minutes left. That’s when a blown goaltending call stemmed the Wildcats momentum, and they could get no closer the rest of the way. Still, the Wildcats gave the Zags all they could handle in the second half and walked off with their heads high - even if tears were filling their eyes.