The Daily Northwestern

Men’s Basketball: Through doubt and heartbreak, Northwestern fulfills its belief

Dererk Pardon takes the court. The Wildcats' sophomore center was one of a handful of Northwestern players whose improvement helped the program make history.

Dererk Pardon takes the court. The Wildcats' sophomore center was one of a handful of Northwestern players whose improvement helped the program make history.

(Daily file photo by Colin Boyle)

(Daily file photo by Colin Boyle)

Dererk Pardon takes the court. The Wildcats' sophomore center was one of a handful of Northwestern players whose improvement helped the program make history.

Ben Pope, Reporter

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Five months ago, when Northwestern fans were focused on the football team’s homecoming win and March itself — much less its Madness — felt like a distant afterthought, coach Chris Collins called on five players to evolve from “wildcards” to constant contributors.

If Scottie Lindsey, Vic Law and Dererk Pardon, as well as Gavin Skelly and Aaron Falzon, could “do what we feel they can do and believe they can do,” Collins said in October, “then we can have an outstanding season.”

But would an outstanding season equate to the Wildcats’ first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance? Even Collins seemed to doubt that.

“The goal is to have a program that is good every year and is in the mix to be a tournament team every year, and we’re not there yet,” he added. “We’re still working towards that.”

Yet Sunday afternoon, 146 days and a program-record 23 wins later, Lindsey, Law and Pardon — the team’s second-leading scorer, defensive ace and leading rebounder, respectively — celebrated just that in a glorious mosh pit of relief and tears and leaps for joy.

In the middle of it was Collins, basking in the moment.

“To see all of this, it gets you emotional, because these are the things we all dreamed of,” Collins said. “I remember sitting in their living rooms and just asking them to believe. I said, ‘Look, I have nothing tangible, I can’t show you any banners, I can’t show any pros that I’ve coached as a head coach. … I just want you to believe in this.’”

To fully grasp the possibilities of this season, however, required heartbreak along the way.

First, a crushing 70-68 loss at Butler on Nov. 16, when the Cats gave up a basket with two seconds left to fall to an eventual No. 4 seed. On the bus afterward, Collins said he had an epiphany: “We’ve got a chance to be good.”

Second, a deflating 70-66 loss to Notre Dame on Nov. 22, when Nathan Taphorn’s errant pass squandered the Cats’ lead with 14 seconds left and taught the senior forward a lesson about the importance of inbounding.

Third, a devastating 63-62 loss to Indiana on Feb. 25, when NU blew a 7-point lead in the final 80 seconds and left itself seemingly in need of a win in its final two regular season games.

Injuries, too, plagued the Cats, as Falzon spent the entire season recovering from knee surgery, Pardon missed eight games with a broken hand and Lindsey was sidelined for the middle of the conference schedule with mononucleosis and back issues.

Amid all the turbulence, the team picked up the quality wins they needed to make the bulk of their season a success: an early-season victory over Texas that convinced Law his team “could be really special,” a comeback over ACC upstart Wake Forest, a dominant 35-point rout of Iowa, a back-and-forth win at Wisconsin without Lindsey’s services.

But then the calendar turned to March, and NU tournament’s resume appeared in desperate need of one last win, and from the heartbreak emerged the one moment that will never be surpassed in Evanston lore.

Against Michigan, Taphorn redeemed himself, throwing a pinpoint inbounds pass on Pardon’s iconic buzzer-beating layup and sealing the necessary bid-clinching win the Cats had let slip.

A week and a half later, following Big Ten Tournament wins over Rutgers and Maryland and the team’s first-ever appearance in the conference semifinals, that bid was fulfilled.

“To finally to be over the hump is so fantastic,” Law said. “To come where we’ve come and finally be here, and not be on the bubble but be in the tournament, feels great.”

NU’s focus will now turn to Thursday’s matchup in Salt Lake City against ninth-seeded Vanderbilt, which won seven of its last nine games in the SEC to earn its second consecutive tournament appearance.

Shortly after the ecstasy of hearing NU’s name announced in the bracket, Collins spoke about his friendship with Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew, his familiarity with tournament logistics from his days as a Duke assistant and his need to start watching film of the Commodores on Sunday night. Belief fulfilled and ticket punched, his job responsibilities continued in earnest.

So perhaps it was fitting that the duty of providing the big-picture nostalgia fell on fifth-year senior forward Sanjay Lumpkin, the only member of the team to predate Collins and one of the few the coach didn’t call on last October to step up with more consistency.

“You think back to the Michigan moment, the big wins we’ve had this year, the run we made in the Big Ten tournament — we’ve had a lot of very special moments,” Lumpkin said. “We’ve had a lot of ‘first this,’ ‘first that’ this season, and it’s just been a year that I’ll never forget.”

Twitter: @benpope111