Friday, December 19, 2008

Friday Flashback: March 5, 1999

Some people are suggesting that winning on Saturday at Stanford will be a defining win for the Northwestern basketball program. I disagree, Stanford, while 6-0, is not exactly a powerhouse. However, I will say that one must for Coach Carmody and the ‘Cats if they do want this to be THE year for NU hoops is to get a signature win. In today’s edition of Friday Flashback I want to revisit the closest NU has ever come to pulling off such a victory.

First, we need understand what actually constitutes a signature win. It’s the win which announces a team’s presence to the nation. It informs all their upcoming opponents that they better be ready to play or they’ll be adding a number on the left said of their win-loss column. Most important, though, it is a win over an opponent who is ranked at or near the top of national polls. Recent examples include Ron Zook’s 2007 Illinois football team beating top ranked Ohio State on the way to the Rose Bowl and the 2007-2008 Davidson’s men’s basketball team beating Georgetown in the NCAA tournament. A little closer to home, Gary Barnett’s 1995 football team asserted their presence on the national scene when they recorded a signature win 19-13 over Michigan in front of 100,000 people at Michigan Stadium. Northwestern basketball has yet to achieve such a signature win. Over the years I can think of several close losses which might have turned into such a win, but without a doubt the loss to #2 Michigan State on March 5, 1999 was the closest. Let's recap how close the 'Cats came to shocking the world.

In all my years watching sports I may have never seen a better effort from an underdog than what the ‘Cats gave that day. I remember the camera fixing on the Wisconsin fans as they rose to their feet to cheer Evan Eschmeyer as he gave the Wildcats what would be their final lead of the day with about three minutes left in the game.

In the final three minutes of that epic game, Michigan State managed to scrape together five points. That was enough to secure the victory, but NU didn’t make it easy. Down two with the clocking winding down fron ten seconds towards triple zero, Northwestern guard David Newman got the ball after an MSU basket and rushed it towards the hoop. Once in the lane, Newman lofted a soft floater which looked on target until Michigan State’s Antonio Smith batted it away. Michigan State’s fans breathed a sigh of relief until they saw the batted ball roll into the hands of Northwestern freshman forward Steve Leopre. After one quick dribble, Lepore leaned in over a defender and fired an off balance three point shot. He came inches from changing Northwestern basketball forever.

If the Wildcats had beaten the Spartans they would have advanced to play Wisconsin in the semi-finals of the Big Ten Tournament. Had they beat the Badgers, which they certainly could have, they would have played the last place Illinois Fighting Illini who had made remarkable run to the final in the conference title game. It would have been almost a perfect confluence of events for the ‘Cats to make their first NCAA tournament. Not only would the road there have been relatively easy, but the team would have been playing with a ton of extra confidence after knocking off the number two team in the nation live on ESPN. Beating Michigan State in full view of a national TV audience could have totally changed the national perception of Northwestern basketball. Not only might the ‘Cats future opponents in the Big Ten Tournament have found themselves suddenly more worried about NU, but the national press which such an upset would have generated might have changed how college basketball fans and potential recruits viewed Northwestern basketball. Unfortunately, thanks to the rim on the east end of the United Center NU’s dream of a signature win remained unrealized.

When the ball left his hand, Steve Lepore’s shot for the win looked as if it was right on, but it ended up slightly short and hit the front of the rim. When the ball hit the rim, it bounced high into to the air and it looked for a moment as if the ball might still manage to fall into the basket. Unfortunately, on the way down the ball stuck the rim a second time before falling to the United Center floor. Despite the best efforts of Eschmeyer and Lepore, the ‘Cats finished the day inches from their signature win.

Although it was sad to watch the ‘Cats play so well and come up short, one thing which eased this fan's pain was, despite the ‘Cats failing to achieve their signature win, the respect which the rest of the college basketball world showed for NU’s effort. The broadcasters on ESPN effusively praised Eschmeyer’s fantastic play. In his postgame press conference Michigan State Head Coach Tom Izzo said NU deserved to win and admitted the Wildcats outplayed and outhustled his mighty Spartans. The most memorable praise for the ‘Cats, though, came from the crowd of Wisconsin fans who rose to their feet and saluted the ‘Cats effort with a standing ovation after the final buzzer sounded. It was fantastic moment. It reminded me of the end of Rocky in which Rocky Balboa remains the people’s champ despite failing to win his title bout. The ‘Cats might not have possessed Rocky’s staying power, but at least for a while in March of 1999 they held the respect of every college basketball fan in the country. It wasn’t a signature win, but for at least a little while it seemed like a start. Sadly, that start was abruptly halted a little over a year later when a slew of fine freshman recruited off the ‘Cats NIT season in 98-99 transferred after suffering the wrath of then Head Coach Kevin O’Neil for a year.

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