Men’s Basketball: Season-ending loss sets stage for Northwestern’s next chapter
March 19, 2017
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SALT LAKE CITY — For a brief moment, it appeared as though the Wildcats were on the brink of the impossible.
And for a Northwestern team that overcame injuries and slumps to tally a program-best 24 wins and qualify for its first-ever NCAA Tournament, an improbable comeback against top-seeded Gonzaga would only have built on a prevailing dream.
But the Cats’ final push, which saw a 20-point deficit sliced to 5, fell just short, shattering the team’s tournament hopes and ending its season.
Yet, beneath the disappointing 79-73 result, Saturday’s competitive close offered final proof that NU basketball has emerged from decades of futility.
“To me, the second half tonight is who this group was all year long,” coach Chris Collins said. “They took me on an amazing ride.”
The second-round battle saw no shortage of emotion. And from it all emerged an aura of finality, palpable as the Cats’ core trio of sophomore forward Vic Law and junior guards Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey exited in the final minute to a chorus of applause.
But the conclusion bore little resemblance to those of previous years. There was disappointment and heartbreak, but also an underlying sense of happiness — a realization that, with the season in the rearview, NU’s dramatic finish set the foundation for something bigger.
“We know we deserve to be here. And we played like it in the second half,” Law said. “We had all the pieces to be special. … This is just a building block, this is just the beginning.”
Much of that stems from the Cats’ young core. Only senior forwards Sanjay Lumpkin and Nathan Taphorn will depart at the end of the year, as NU’s young pieces enter the offseason with an opportunity to develop.
And though next year’s team may look remarkably similar to this season’s group, the perception will be different.
“Coming into this year, one of our Chicago papers told us … that we would be the third best team in the Ivy League, and we proved that wrong right away,” McIntosh said.
There will be still be doubters, but the pervading sentiment will have changed.
NU’s loss to Gonzaga may represent the end of one fairy tale, but it also ushers in a new era of Northwestern basketball — an era in which the Cats no longer have to answer for years of futility, but can instead pursue success like any other big-time program.
On Selection Sunday, Collins said NU had put itself on the national map with its first ever tournament bid, and had no intention of leaving.
Saturday, after taking the region’s top seed to the wire on basketball’s biggest stage, the Cats did more than simply end their season with the resilience that characterized their historic campaign. They also provided the perfect launching point for whatever is to follow.
“The sky is the limit for this program,” Lumpkin said. “This is just the start of Northwestern basketball and I am just so proud of these guys and our fight all season. I will be an alumni, but I can’t wait to watch where this program goes.”