In retrospect, I should have considered it an omen when, lo and behold, a former band section-mate and classmate of mine occupied seat 31C, right next to my 31B, on the Delta flight from MSP to SLC. Surprised at the chance meeting, we spent the better part of an hour chatting about the likelihood of a ‘Cats victory over Vanderbilt, about our careers, and about the different Northwestern fans we’d see milling about MSP.
Salt Lake City is a weird town. Sprawling but with a compact downtown, great beer served under the vestiges of theocratic alcohol laws, the trappings of a modernizing city still anchored by Mormon Disneyland. We had no idea what to expect of damn near anything, from fan experience to Northwestern-Vanderbilt to the size of the purple hoard making the trip.
What a surprise the first night was.
Upon landing and getting to my hotel (just west of Pioneer Park, for those of you following along) around 10:15pm, we decided to set out for some good beer close to the hotel, deciding on Squatters Brewery, a mere (so we thought) 2.5-block walk.
Despite having been warned, holy shit, blocks in Salt Lake City are long.
When we got to Squatters—which became the go to "I need a drink; where should we go?" destination for the weekend—we were stunned. Wall-to-wall purple. We asked the hostess if a private Northwestern event was going on. She replied "No, people have just kind of been showing up!"
J.A. Adande pushed his way past us through a crowd. We later found out that he was seated at a table with Michael Wilbon and Rachel Nichols. Evan Eschmeyer stood near the bar, holding court. Kevin Rankin was milling around, slapping high fives with older alumni. Later in the weekend we sat a table away from Jeff Ryan, too. It boded well for a decent Thursday showing.
But holy shit, the Thursday showing.
The bar hosting the Northwestern pep rally filled up in 20 minutes. I and hundreds of others were shunted into the neighboring Sky Bar, where, well, we were treated, in true Northwestern fashion, to a joint networking session/pep rally/watch party. Consider Mike Wilbon’s appearance, complete with a shot at Skip Bayless:
I’ve lost the better videos I took, somehow. Here were hundreds of fans, clad in purple, screaming their heads off—irrespective of age—at the slightest mention of Northwestern’s academics, or athletics, or Doing It the Right Way. We were whipped up into a frenzy, aided by Princeton’s valiant charge at Notre Dame playing on the big screens, and ready to cheer the ‘Cats on.
And then the scene before and at Vivint Arena:
There were thousands of Northwestern fans filling the wide, wide streets of Salt Lake City, chanting "Let’s go ‘Cats!" (shut up, it’s all we’ve got) and high-fiving total strangers. We were all part of this, something special, and damn it, we were going to enjoy it.
It was really happening, and I’d conservatively put the estimate of Northwestern fans in attendance at 6,000. It was partisan, home-town, pro-’Cats cheering in a way we’d been lucky to approach before this season:
And then Vanderbilt. Despite their 7’1" shooting machine Luke Kornet, despite their five-out offense which looking liable to stymie Northwestern’s pack-line man defense on the dribble drive by swinging the ball and getting a mismatch around the key, the Commodores had no answer for Northwestern’s physicality in the first half.
Matthew Fisher-Davis. Man. That kid shot the fucking lights out in the second half. Hand in his face, standing him up, three feet beyond the arc...he couldn’t miss. He dragged Vanderbilt back into that game. And so despite having opened up a 15-point lead midway through the half, Northwestern choked away every point of that lead to the Commodores, giving it up with 1:36 left on a Riley LaChance three.
The back-and-forth began, and we sat in Section 133, convinced it would be yet another instance of Northwesterning. As I mentioned in my brief recap, Kevin Blackistone lost his shit in the aisle next to me.
And then Fisher-Davis committed the blunder of all blunders, intentionally fouling Bryant McIntosh with :14 left on the clock, just forgetting where he was in the game. My heart breaks for the kid, because...wow. I’m confident he won’t be defined by that mistake, though, because he is a hell of an athlete who can shoot the lights out.
And so, having missed their fair share of free throws and choked away a lead, it came down to Sanjay Lumpkin, senior stalwart and noted "glue guy," with this one to make it 68-66.
The shot rimmed out, and we lost our goddamn minds. People crying. Hugging. The team staying on the court, soccer-style, applauding fans in every direction. Chris Collins hugging and high-fiving like he never wanted to leave the court. Pat Fitzgerald showing up in the locker room. Doug Collins once again becoming a media sensation for the shades of red a human face should not be allowed to turn. Oh, did you hear Julia Louis-Dreyfus was in town?
Hey, there’s no sense in pretending we should’ve acted like we’d been there, right?
A trip to Gracie’s after the game meant this time, the upper level was actually reserved for Northwestern fans, who once again packed the indoor and outdoor sections of the bar. There’s something about an Epic Sour IPA with the Wasatch Range in the background while it’s 70 degrees and the ‘Cats have just won their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance, right?
With football players like Darnell Autry—DARNELL FUCKIN’ AUTRY—a table away from me, Esch and Rankin making a cameo, and our group dad Andy (an NU alum and actual father to two of the guys in the group) proclaiming he had a feeling we’d beat Gonzaga, I got a little nostalgic for the Great Amateur Oenophile of years past. Thankfully, Tavaris Hardy was there, too.
We definitely fist-bumped, and I definitely thanked him for repping Northwestern so well. (Josh Pastner had allowed him a break from Georgia Tech’s second-round NIT preparations to come out to SLC.)
That night the texts and group messages came rolling in—we’d be joined by 6 more, who were getting hotels and using airline miles and moving heaven and earth to come join us. No one wanted to miss out on the Northwestern party of the decade; besides, word had gotten out that we had the city to ourselves.
Friday the group went skiing, and with my bad knee and the Marquette game that night, I opted to stick around in SLC by myself. It was 78 and sunny on St. Patrick’s Day, giving me the perfect opportunity to...walk the four miles from the hotel up to the Huntsman Center on the campus of the University of Utah.
A steep climb, but well worth the exercise and the view.
More people arriving that night—from LA, Chicago, and places unknown—swelled the numbers of our group, and we formed a small but...raucous...group in the booths at Lumpy’s, on Pierpont Place, in honor of Northwestern’s own Lumpy. They enjoyed the cheap prices of SLC, and I enjoyed their willingness to buy lots of rounds of shots. :)
But we were never bound to be out too late that night, what with the showdown against the #1 seed the next morning. After a breakfast consisting mostly of bacon and coffee ("and NUMB will always be a part of you even as / a NUMB / alum-alum-alum") followed by four or five more beers at Squatters, we headed back to the pep rally for what was bound to be more insanity.
And it was. (Sorry about the vertical videos.)
As we made the trek to Vivint once more, progressively more nervous at Gonzaga’s size and shooting ability, we once again saw the streams of purple leaving every bar and hotel, headed to the intersection of Karl Malone Drive and John Stockton Boulevard (or W 300 and N 100, since Utah is weird).
And then Northwestern learned what real NCAA Tournament competition looked like.
Shoved off-balance by the ‘Zags athleticism, pre-occupied with stopping (which they did) Przemek Karnowski inside, Northwestern shot an abysmal 9% from deep in the first half, looked cowed by Gonzaga’s physicality, and struggled to get open looks, trailing by as much as 20 at one point. Even the Bulldog faithful managed to blunt any fan momentum with their own noise (and weird, weird band).
With both teams in the bonus from about the 12-minute mark of the second-half on, Northwestern needed hot shooting and fearless driving to claw back into this one. And it was Nathan Taphorn—efficient three-point shooter extraordinaire—who brought the ‘Cats back within 9 for the first time since the first half, drilling a cold-blooded three and setting off a furious comeback over the next five minutes.
Bryant McIntosh found his floater and got into the lane (he had 20 on an inefficient-but-needed 7/20 day from the field). Vic Law continued to thrill, adding 18 points and 8 boards along with this put-back dunk to cap a 23-8 run and bring the ‘Cats within 5.
And then it all fell apart.
Here’s where I’ll say my one piece. Was it a goaltend? You bet your ass.
Should Chris Collins have run on the floor? No, probably not.
Am I going to pretend I would have been any better in that situation or should expect that, as so many talking heads have enjoyed saying, you "just can’t take a T there?" No, and you’re a fucking lying hypocrite if you say you would have obviously kept your cool.
Collins had been in the ear of the refs all game, as the herky-jerky second half descended into a guessing game. I called that he’d get a T with 16 minutes to play in the half (ask Tom; he was sitting right next to me). Every TV timeout he’d walk towards and talk at the officials for 30 seconds before an assistant pulled him back to the huddle. This T was a long time in the making, and it happened at the worst possible time, swinging the game from potentially a 3-point NU deficit to a 7-point deficit and meaning the hill the ‘Cats would have to climb was even steeper.
Gonzaga, led by Zach Collins and Nigel Williams-Goss, just played bully-ball the rest of the way, keeping Northwestern at an arm’s length of 6 to 8 points and running out the clock on Northwestern’s dream.
But when that clock hit zero, long after we’d given Sanjay one final standing ovation and screamed when walk-on—and, you might have heard, son of Northwestern alumna Julia Louis-Dreyfus—Charlie Hall entered the game, we stayed and cheered until every last ‘Cat had left the floor. Once again, it was hugs and applause, because this time we were applauding our last chance to be privileged enough to watch this history-making bunch leave the floor together.
I find it hard to leave you with many more thoughts than that. We rode this roller-coaster as a school, a fanbase, so desperate for one appearance that it finally seemed like an eternity when we got it. My four days in Salt Lake City might as well have been a month, and I don’t know that I ever could have lapped up every bit of the experience. Bryant, Vic, Scottie Lindsey, the heroic inside stylings of Dererk Pardon and Barrett Benson, Sanjay, Tap...all those guys and more made history that we’ll all remember and never let go of.
Maybe I should get around to changing my signature, huh? Not just yet, though. I want to bask in this a little while longer...
Because this weekend proved that Northwestern can hang. It’s no guarantee that they will, even next year, as they pack up and move to Allstate Arena in Rosemont. And there's work to do, even with the starting four of McIntosh-Lindsey-Law-Pardon return, likely joined by Aaron Falzon and the sartorially-gifted Rapolas Ivanauskas. But it’s proof that the program, having tasted success, wants more and will continue to push forward for another appearance.
And my sincerest—sincerest—sincerest thanks to Sanjay Lumpkin and Nathan Taphorn. Through a coaching change, altered roles on the team, and adversity of losing seasons, you two persevered and were model Wildcats every step of the way. I hope I get to buy you both a beer next year at the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
Because I feel pretty confident saying that Northwestern Nation, players, coaches, administrators, alumni, and fans, can all agree: We’ll be back.