Northwestern’s one shining moment in March has arrived. Dererk Pardon delivered a play that every Northwestern sports fan will remember forever.
Northwestern fans are used to pain.
The Wildcats have sat on the sidelines forever in March. Literally forever. They have seen other teams have their moments and shine in the spotlight. Sure, Northwestern has been close a few times. But close does not count. Not when there is so much on the line.
They have faced heartbreak before. Jared Sullinger crushed their dreams twice in one year with a free throw in Evanston and then a game-winning basket in the Big Ten Tournament. Michael Thompson scored a Big Ten record against Minnesota, only to see the team fall short. John Shurna was the school’s all-time leading scorer and never could get the team over the top.
So close. . . so close. . .
And now, the breakthrough. Since Northwestern has never had one, this feels the appropriate way to express these foreign feelings for Northwestern fans:
— Jeff Eisenband (@JeffEisenband) March 2, 2017
And, in case you need a good cry:
— ?Titanic Hoops? (@TitanicHoops) March 2, 2017
This is not an exaggeration. This is not being dramatic. This is a moment Northwestern fans are truly celebrating.
Those outside the Northwestern community may not understand exactly what Dererk Pardon’s game-winning layup over Michigan on Wednesday means. This was not just a game-winning basket in a Big Ten game in early March.
This was a cathartic release of decades of frustration and defeat.
Northwestern was likely going to the Tournament anyway. The Wildcats had built a solid resume picking up wins against Dayton and Wake Forest in non-conference and finishing at least .500 in the conference.
Nothing is ever easy for Northwestern. The Wildcats have faced too many close calls ever to feel comfortable.
Saturday’s loss to Indiana only added to the narrative. The Wildcats had fallen apart through the latter half of February — a win at Wisconsin the only saving grace, albeit one that seemed to guarantee a Tournament berth for the optimistic among the fan base. The panic levels rose their highest last week with a loss at Illinois and then a last-second defeat to Indiana.
The at least not-good losses were seemingly piling up. Northwestern had reached 20 wins and guaranteed a .500 record in the Big Ten, but nothing ever seems safe. And the Northwestern Basketball Hating Gods seemed to strike again with Thomas Bryant seeing a free throw bounce off the back iron and in to give Indiana a one-point lead.
The Wildcats had control for much of the game Wednesday against the Wolverines. But the game seemed destined for overtime. Northwestern needed one more win just to feel safe. And momentum was turning against the Wildcats — overtime was no sure thing.
It did not feel like Northwestern would feel completely safe heading to the Big Ten Tournament next week.
They needed that moment. They needed that exclamation point to their season. More than anything else, the fans needed a moment to show this is happening.
As Nathan Taphorn threw the ball downcourt, its arc seemed perfect. And somehow Pardon got behind the defense, caught it perfectly and laid it in. You can see in the expression from the fans the amount of surprise and relief.
The pure reaction to this shot and this play can only be described accurately in video from Welsh-Ryan Arena:
— Larry Jackson III (@LarryJacksonIII) March 2, 2017
For the Northwestern fans that were not at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Wednesday, they will still know exactly where they were when the shot happened. They will know exactly what they were doing when it happened.
So, here is my story.
I am based in Orlando and I was covering the Orlando Magic’s game against the New York Knicks. It was a boring, frustrating game for Magic fans. It was another lost game in what has become a lost season.
I did what I tend to do when work conflicts with the Northwestern game, I just followed it on Twitter. This game was different. At halftime, I popped the game on BTN2Go to keep a closer eye. When it was clear this game would be closer, attention shifted away from what was clearly a run-of-the-mill game to one that had a little more meaning.
I was an optimist about Northwestern’s tournament chances. But one more win would clinch it completely. And it probably needed to be this one with Purdue coming to town next.
The BTN2Go stream was behind Twitter. I could already see the reactions coming in before the play. That did not dull the reaction or the feeling of that moment.
Every Northwestern fan is going to have that moment and that story.
More importantly, Northwestern will have the satisfaction of having the team’s “March Moment.” The Wildcats punched their own ticket. They are not waiting until Selection Sunday or leaving things in the hands of the committee.
Northwestern’s back was against the wall. The Wildcats needed a win. They needed a statement of some sort.
Northwestern delivered and something more. The Wildcats gave something Northwestern basketball fans have waited decades for — literally forever.
The Wildcats had their one shining moment in March. And maybe there is a little bit more on the way.