SALT LAKE CITY — At first, Bryant McIntosh was confused. Maybe Northwestern wasn’t actually trailing by a point. Why else would Vanderbilt guard Matthew Fisher-Davis had fouled him intentionally in the backcourt with 14.6 seconds left?
“I thought maybe I made a mistake,” McIntosh said.
Matthew Fisher-Davis fouls Northwestern’s best player up one pic.twitter.com/P2jPMle9MI
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) March 16, 2017
But then a glance at the scoreboard confirmed what McIntosh had originally thought when pushing the ball up the court before the foul. No. 8 seed Northwestern was trailing 66-65, and Fisher-Davis was the one who made the mistake.
Northwestern’s driving force all game with 25 points on 10-of-16 shooting, McIntosh stepped to the foul line and knocked down two free throws to give the Wildcats the lead.
McIntosh, who grew up dreaming of creating big moments in the NCAA Tournament, was ready for the moment.
“You don’t really imagine being down one and getting fouled very often,” he said. “You envision yourself hitting the game winner. But to be able to do that at the free throw line was very relaxing.”
15 seconds later, Northwestern won the first NCAA Tournament game it ever competed in, 68-66.
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 16, 2017
While Northwestern lives to face No. 1 seed Gonzaga on Saturday, Vanderbilt will go home to face an offseason of what-ifs.
“It could have been a miscommunication,” Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew said of the deciding play. “[Fisher-Davis] looked over at me before.”
After the game, Fisher-Davis told The Tennesseean he thought the Commodores were still trailing by a point after Riley LaChance’s layup with 18 seconds left. So when Drew pointed at McIntosh, he interpreted the coach’s direction as “foul him” instead of “guard him.”
Fisher-Davis said he thought Vandy was down 1. When coach pointed for him to pick up McIntosh, MFD thought he was saying to foul him.
— Adam Sparks (@AdamSparks) March 16, 2017
It was one of the cringiest moments college basketball can offer. The only reason ninth-seeded Vanderbilt had a chance in Thursday’s game was because of Fisher-Davis’ 14 points in the second half that helped Vanderbilt erase a 15-point deficit.
But try telling that to a kid who just gifted two free points when all his team needed was one stop to continue its season at least two more days.
“I’ll talk to Matt more in depth at some point,” Drew said. “He’s down about it.”
Vanderbilt still had its chance to redeem Fisher-Davis, but Drew had no timeouts remaining and could not save his team from a muddled possession that resulted in a long, contested three by LaChance.
Northwestern senior Sanjay Lumpkin made a free throw with 1.4 seconds left, and Fisher-Davis’ final full court heave smacked off the backboard and dropped to the court harmlessly.
Redemption will have to wait.
Fisher-Davis may have nightmares about that final sequence for the rest of his life. But with the way McIntosh had torn up Vanderbilt’s defense, who’s to say another floater wasn’t on its way a few seconds later to stink the Commodores anyway?
“The kid is a winner,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said of McIntosh. “He lives, breathes, sleeps this. He’s passionate about winning the game. He wants the ball in those situations. … I thought he was the best player on the floor today.”
Even the best can benefit from a gift.