· Published: March 17, 2017 Updated: August 03, 2017
Northwestern fans behaved all afternoon as if they never had watched their team play an NCAA Tournament game.
Bryant McIntosh and his Wildcats teammates acted like they do this stuff all the time.
Northwestern made school history Sunday merely by being selected to the NCAA field, but why stop there? The No. 8-seeded Wildcats extended their stay at Vivint Smart Home Arena with McIntosh's two free throws with 14.6 seconds left helping them take a 68-66 victory over Vanderbilt.
The irony of Thursday's meeting between elite academic schools is a silly foul based on an apparent misreading of the scoreboard determined the outcome. Vandy's Matthew Fisher-Davis purposely grabbed McIntosh, who was dribbling across half-court, after Riley LaChance's drive gave the Commodores a one-point lead.
A Vandy fan in the front row screamed a valid question: "What are you doing?"
The Northwestern crowd buzzed, almost speechless for the first time. Those folks accounted for roughly one-fourth of the session's attendance of 16,952 — about 4,500 more than the Thursday afternoon gathering in this building in 2013, when Gonzaga also played.
So now it gets interesting. If coach Mark Few of No. 1 seed Gonzaga has felt unappreciated at times in Salt Lake City, where his school supposedly has a built-in following among fans of Jazz/Zags legend John Stockton, just wait until Saturday night. Northwestern's fans will be revved up even more for the second round after experiencing this breakthrough.
The Wildcats were making their first NCAA appearance in a tournament that started in 1939. So maybe McIntosh's tying and winning free throws won't occupy quite the same place in Chicago sports lore as the Cubs' first World Series victory in 108 years, but the Wildcats' quest started later.
Wow, did the Northwestern fans have fun — with some agonizing at the end. They stood and cheered the school's promo video during a timeout, hugged one another after big plays and generally took over the area like no visiting fan base has done in the state's NCAA Tournament history, dating to 1960. Kentucky's following at the Huntsman Center in 1997 may have come close in numbers, but not in volume.
In the postgame news conference, Northwestern coach Chris Collins couldn't make it through his opening statement without getting choked up about the "awesome" support. When he walked onto the court and glimpsed the scene, he said, "Man, it got me for a second."
The Wildcats wobbled after leading by 15 points midway through the second half. The fans "willed us through," Collins said. The reality is Northwestern had to deliver in three offensive sequences while trailing in the last 1 minute, 12 seconds. Those plays included McIntosh's shot in the lane, Dererk Pardon's two free throws after a rebound of McIntosh's miss then McIntosh's shots after Fisher-Davis fouled him.
Fisher-Davis "made a mistake at the end," said teammate Luke Kornet, who hugged him after the play.
"It could have been a miscommunication," Vandy coach Bryce Drew said.
In any case, Northwestern's victory was secured only after LaChance back-rimmed a 3-point try. The ball was knocked out of bounds, then Sanjay Lumpkin made 1 of 2 free throws with 1.4 seconds remaining. Vandy's final heave was launched too late, and the Wildcats and their fans could celebrate.
Kevin Nixon once transferred from Northwestern to BYU (via Utah Valley, then a junior college), after being part of a promising recruiting class that expected to end the NCAA drought in the early 1990s. Asked if he thought this day ever would come, Nixon said, "I definitely had my doubts, but I'm really happy for Northwestern and the basketball program."
Jazz coach Quin Snyder was a Duke assistant during Collins' playing days and is a close friend and former staff member of Doug Collins, Chris' father. "I'm not surprised with what he's done," Snyder said this week.
So the Wildcats have a good vibe at Vivint, where they'll face Stockton's old school Saturday. You'll be hearing a lot of "Let's go Cats!" around town as they prepare to take on Gonzaga and enjoy their ongoing role as well-supported underdogs.