This week has been really tough as an NU fan. Therefore, I went back into my archives decided to rerun a post from last year about my favorite experience as a Wildcat fan. I hope this reminds everyone why following the ‘Cats is so much fun.
On January 26, 2005, Northwestern and Iowa met for what is my favorite ever game as a Northwestern fan. Though I hold great hope that this year’s team will provide me tournament action which will usurp Michael Jenkins’s clutch three as my favorite NU basketball fan moment, the heroics of Jenkins and Vedran Vukusic will always be my favorite NU student fan moment.
As I think back on the game, I remember my friends and I arriving in the student section slightly late, about the under 16:00 timeout, thanks to having just played an intramural game. I also remember being extremely ticked about losing our game and getting ever angrier as I entered the arena and saw the ‘Cats down early. Thanks to our late arrival, we ended up in the corner of the student section closet to the Iowa bench. Through I generally preferred a more central location, this turned out to be a great seat. As the first half of the game progressed, the game got closer and the student section started taunting Iowa grade Pierre Pierce. Usually, it seems the taunts from the NU student section roll right off the back of the Big Ten’s stars, but Pierce seemed rattled. Late in the first half he started committing turnovers. Seeing the success of our efforts, we continued taunt Pierce the rest of the game, and he continued to turn the ball over. He ended up with 10 TO’s total. Combined with his 15 points, I suppose he could say he got a double-double, but it probably wasn’t the type he envisioned.
Despite our efforts, however, as the game went into the second half, it seemed Pierce and the Hawkeyes would get out of Welsh-Ryan with a victory. With only 3:27 seconds left, Iowa held a 12 point lead. At that point, Coach Carmody had the Wildcats start fouling the Hawkeyes. Coaches always have players start fouling late, but it rarely works. This time it did. Pierce and his backcourt teammate Jeff Horner proceeded to clunk free throw after free throw, and Vedran Vukusic started to take over for the Wildcats. Vedran scored 13 points to in the final two minute of regulation to tie the score. Most notably, with a sore shoulder which almost kept him out of the game, he drilled three straight free throws to send the game to overtime. Since we were close to the Iowa bench, we could see Iowa coach Steve Alford talking to his players during timeouts. At one point, a student behind me started shouting, “I read his lips, he said Vedran, he said Vedran.” Indeed, Alford tried to get his players to stop Vukusic, but they couldn’t.
In overtime, the Hawkeyes still couldn’t stop Vukusic. He brought the Wildcats to within a point at 73-72 when he made a basket and got fouled with just under twenty seconds left. NU then fouled Iowa, after the Hawks made a single free throw, the score was 74-72. Then, disaster seemed to strike for NU. The ‘Cats attempt to tie the game, a backdoor pass from T.J. Parker to Vedran, went out of bounds. Thankfully, Parker made up for his poor pass when he stole the ball from Pierce on the inbounds. It was Pierce’s final turnover, number ten, and the crowd let him have it as he walked towards the Iowa bench.
As the Hawkeyes gathered around their bench, it was again clear to the lip reader behind me that coach Alford wanted his players to keep close watch on Vukusic. It made sense. NU would want the player with 32 points to get his hands on the ball in an effort to tie or win the game. Thinking along the lines of Alford, I watched Vedran closely as the two teams came back on the court. As Tim Doyle stood with the ball under the basket, Vedran and Davor Duvancic ran a classic X-cross under the hoop. Iowa stuck with both tall Wildcats. Thankfully, Iowa was as focused on Vedran as I was and didn’t see little Michael Jenkins standing all alone in the corner. Doyle did, though. He threw a typically sharp pass to Jenkins. Once he had the ball, Jenkins let fly a three pointer. I remember as the ball went up and bounced high of the rim having time to think, “Damn, that was a great comeback, too bad we lost.” Thankfully, the ball didn’t hear my thoughts. It bounced high off the rim a second time and fell through the net. Final score: Northwestern, 75 Iowa, 74.
In a split second after the ball fell through the basket, I was on the court. It was the most amazing spontaneous outpouring of joy and excitement I have ever been a part of. I can’t say I really remember running to mid court, but I remember once I got there jumping up and down, high fiving everybody, and watching a group of my fellow students lift Michael Jenkins into the air in attempt to carry him off the court. It was an amazing shared experience. It’s the reason college basketball is so much fun, and the reason that as a student you should never miss a game. I know my roommates who didn’t see Michael Jenkins’s shot in person celebrated in our living room almost as much as those of us at the game, I saw the evidence when I got back Still, I don’t think they experienced that same shared experience of excitement as those of us at the game (Plus, they can't play "Where's Waldo" and find themselves in the photo at the top of the page). Anyone who was in the student section that night knows what I’m talking about. It’s hard to describe, but all I can say is I’ve been to a lot of sporting events and I’ve felt anything quite like it before or since. I’ve talked to family members who were NU students during the 1994 upset of Michigan and they describe that game in a similar way. I guess part of it is the magic of sharing a victory with your classmates. So, I say to all current students, make sure you show up the rest of the year, because you never know when that Welsh-Ryan Arena magic is going to strike.