Men’s Basketball: Purple faithful boost Northwestern in Salt Lake City
March 19, 2017
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SALT LAKE CITY — The scoreboard showed a 5-point deficit for Northwestern, down from 22 earlier in the game. The clock read 5:29.
And from the March Madness logo at center court to the retired Utah Jazz jerseys hanging from the rafters, Salt Lake City’s Vivint Smart Home Arena — located nearly 1,300 miles from Evanston — reverberated with a chant of “Let’s Go Cats.”
Five and a half minutes later, after the Wildcats’ rally against Gonzaga fell just short, after a magical season of unprecedented success for NU ended, after fans gave each player a standing ovation as they walked off the court, sophomore forward Vic Law took a moment to appreciate this week’s purple migration to the central valley of Utah.
“As much as we deserved the fans flying out here and giving us as much love as they did, they deserve just as much credit as we do,” Law said. “When you get all your famous alumni to come back and support you, when you get all the previous teams to come back and watch the games, I just feel like the fans were so special and that they were right in the game with us.”
NCAA Tournament tickets are sold for two-game sessions instead of individual games, which equates to the arena being divided among four fan bases even while watching only two teams at a time. For that reason, as well as the fact that all eight universities playing in the Salt Lake City regional were located more than a 10-hour drive away, establishing a vocal majority in the crowd can be difficult, if not impossible.
NU, however, managed to do it.
Among the crowds of 16,952 and 18,565 that attended the Cats’ games against Vanderbilt and Gonzaga, respectively, fans wearing all shades and variations of NU apparel packed their assigned cheering section and scattered throughout the rest of the arena. Wooed by the team’s Cinderella-esque reputation, many other teams’ fans and unaffiliated Salt Lake City residents seemed to jump on board, too.
The result was a sight that nearly brought coach Chris Collins to tears when he first walked onto the court Thursday, and again later in the press conference following the dramatic win over Vanderbilt.
“When I walked out and saw all that purple out there, it got me for a second,” Collins said. “It just showed what a special place we’re at and how much support this team has gotten from all the NU fans and alums all over the country.”
Collins credited the fans’ energy for motivating his team down the stretch of the first-round game, when his players were tired and his team was trying to cling to a lead. And in Saturday’s second-round matchup, when the tables were flipped and the Cats needed support to rally back from an 18-point halftime deficit, the fans proved able to help with that, too.
Senior forward Sanjay Lumpkin’s steal and dunk in the opening minutes of the second half brought NU’s Section 117 to its feet with a roar — and, at that point, their team was still down by 15.
As the deficit dropped into single digits, fans — led by a visibly fired-up Pat Fitzgerald, who attended both games despite flying back to campus in between — alternated between outrage at several controversial calls and ecstasy with their team’s improbable comeback effort against top-seeded Gonzaga.
The six stories, apple green seats and snow-capped mountain backdrop outside didn’t much resemble the familiar aged confines of Welsh-Ryan Arena that many Cats supporters said goodbye to last weekend, but for two afternoons, the Salt Lake City facility colloquially known as “The Vivint” transformed into a second home for NU this week.
“It was unbelievable to look up in the stands and hear the chants about us,” Lumpkin said Friday. “It was awesome to … just be here, and knowing that our fans have our back like that, it was awesome.”