Everyone thought the pass was long.
It felt long out of Nathan Taphorn’s hands on the baseline and looked long to Dererk Pardon’s eyes in front of the opposite basket. From the sideline, coach Chris Collins thought the same thing.
But Pardon came down with it with 1.6 seconds left, gathered with 1.4 and released with 0.7. Right as the ball cleared the net, the buzzer sounded.
“I thought it was going out of bounds at first,” Pardon said. “Then as I caught it, I was like – the rim is right there. I just turned around and shot the layup.”
The shot was the biggest in Northwestern history, as it gave the Wildcats a 67-65 victory over Michigan and has them as a virtual lock for their first-ever NCAA Tournament bid. Northwestern acted like it, too, tackling Pardon into a dog pile as students stormed the court.
“Well to be honest, this is the game that I committed here for,” said sophomore Vic Law, who had a game-high 18 points. “Everyone said why are you choosing Northwestern? They have no culture, there’s no basketball presence there. To play in a game like this that I don’t think any Northwestern team has really played in a game so big as this, that really meant everything. I mean, how could you not be excited to play in this game?”
Through Saturday’s loss at Indiana, Collins had avoided the pressure-filled topic of the NCAA Tournament with his team. But after a near-collapse in February, he changed gears.
“I’ve talked all year about how we’ve tried to stay focused on what’s in front of us and come up with other motivations,” Collins said. “And really a couple of days ago I decided to go completely away from that, after Indiana. I came in and I challenged them and I told them there was pressure. It was the first time. I said guys there is pressure. Anything good in life involves handling pressure and succeeding under pressure. So we’re not gonna avoid it anymore. We’re not gonna skirt around it. There is pressure on us. We’ve gotta go out and win if we want to do something great.”
Northwestern now has a winning record against the RPI Top 100 and a 4-6 mark against teams in the top 50. On top of that, two losses to Illinois are looking not as bad and a against Wake Forest is looking better as both teams picked up big victories Wednesday.
Despite posting a 2-5 record in February, the Wildcats could still even wear their home whites in the first round of the tournament if they upset Purdue on Sunday or make a Big Ten Tournament run. Right now, I project them as a No. 9 seed.