Monday, March 15, 2010

Northwestern's Postseason History: A Review

Kip Kirkpatrick made a big play in NU's 1994 NIT win over DePaul.

At this time I want to review Northwestern's history in the postseason. Sadly, it shouldn't take you that long to read this post...

The first postseason game in Northwestern’s history sent the Wildcats on a short road trip to the Rosemont Horizon in Rosemont, Illinois. Despite the excitement, one look at a calendar might have been enough to convince even the most optimistic of fans some sort of curse hung over the Wildcats program. After seventy-eight years, the Wildcats were finally playing in the postseason. Their opponent was Notre Dame—on St. Patrick’s Day.

Despite fate's seeming alignment with their opponent, the Wildcats managed to defeat the Irish. Led by the play of Jim Stack, Andre Goode, Michael Jenkins (the first one), and fellow senior Art Aaron the Wildcats cruised to a 71-57 victory. It’s the most lopsided score in the school’s postseason history win or lose.

Before getting into the next game, I want to address an issue. Many players, coaches, and fans use the phrases “we could have won” and “we should have won” interchangeably. Personally, I tend to draw a distinction between the two. To me “we could have won” means both teams played to the best of their abilities and the victorious side was fortunate the clock hit zero with them ahead, because if the game had lasted another five minutes, the outcome might have turned. Most importantly, if you have to say “we could have won” there is nothing to feel bad about.

On the other hand, “we should have won” is a phrase filled with frustration and regret. From my point of view, this unfortunate combination of words can be used to describe two types of losses. The first is a game in which a team was in position to win, but made a series of late mistakes which allowed their opponent to turn an apparent loss into a victory. The second is even more depressing. In this instance, some odd occurrence of bad luck caused a sure win to turn into a loss. The winning team never admits such an occurrence was more luck than skill, but the losing side knows fate, not fitness, doomed them. A good example of this occurred in a college baseball super-regional game a few years back. In this contest, Cal State Fullerton advanced to the College World Series when the opposing pitcher balked in the winning run while intentionally walking a Fullerton hitter. As much as they might have wanted to, Fullerton’s players, coaches, and fans could not argue the balk was anything more than good luck. Their runner certainly didn’t cause the pitcher to get nervous by standing like a statue at third base.

From a Northwestern fan’s perspective, DePaul’s winning margin in the teams’ 1983 NIT game came about as the basketball equivalent of an intentional walk balk. Of course, the perspective of DePaul’s fans is probably quite different. They likely attribute the win to great skill. There is one thing both sides can agree on, though, is the game’s finish was unique.

With about a second remaining and the game tied 63-63 overtime seemed certain. DePaul did have possession of the ball, but they were along way from the basket. Under such circumstances the odds against scoring are considerable. Unfortunately, at least from the Wildcats perspective, nobody told DePaul guard Kenny Patterson the odds. On the game’s final play, DePaul inbounded the ball to Patterson who caught it somewhere north of thirty feet from the hoop. Despite the considerable distance between him and his target, Patterson managed to put enough force behind his shot that the ball traveled all the way to the hoop and through the net. By the time the ball slide through the net’s nylon, the buzzer had sounded. The game was over. The final score: DePaul 65 Northwestern 63.

To this day, most DePaul supporters will argue Patterson’s ability to make his thirty-five foot miracle shot was not luck, but the result of his great shooting skills. They cite All-American honors Patterson received after the 1985 season and his well-known ability to hit long-range jump shots. Based purely on the facts it’s a strong argument, but that doesn’t mean Northwestern fans have to buy it. I wasn’t around then, but from the perspective of my father and the other NU fans in attendance that night, Patterson’s shot will forever remain nothing more than a lucky heave towards the hoop which ended another in a long line of games they walked out of muttering in frustrated disgust, “We should have won.”

Eleven years after Patterson’s long-range basket, the NIT selection committee provided the Wildcats with an opportunity for revenge and this time I was in attendance. DePaul’s Tom Kleinschmidt scored thirteen points in the first half to lead the Blue Demon attack. When the second half started, it was clear the Wildcats intended to shut him down. The ‘Cats defense was all over Kleinschmidt doing everything they could to prevent him from getting an open look. As is often the case in sports, that great defense provided the spark for improved offense. One of the keys to Wildcats improved offense was finding ways to get to the free throw line. As it turned out, this was where the ‘Cats would grab the lead, though, not in the traditional way. With just over four minutes left in the game, Kip Kirkpatrick rebounded a missed free throw and tipped the ball into the hoop to giving the ‘Cats the lead. It was lead they’d hang on to all the way to the buzzer. When DePaul’s last shot missed, I jumped up and pumped both fists into the air. To my left, the student section rushed the court.

A few days later the Wildcats hosted the Xavier Musketeers in the second round of the NIT and the matchup resulted in another classic. Unfortunately, the result of this one didn’t go the Wildcats way. When Kevin Rankin missed a three point jumper with less than ten seconds to go in overtime, the Musketeers grabbed the rebound and made two free throws to seal an 83-79 victory.

Normally the team playing on the road would have an advantage if the home team’s fans didn’t make much noise, but it seemed like the lack of atmosphere in NU’s 1999 NIT game at DePaul made the Wildcats lethargic. DePaul came out and put clamps on Northwestern’s All-America center Evan Eschmeyer holding him to only three shots in the first half. The only reason the Wildcats kept the game close early on was thanks to the dead-eye three point shooting of freshman forward Steve Lepore who nailed four three pointers in the first half. Unfortunately for Northwestern, in second half DePaul realized it was Lepore and not Eschmeyer that was hurting them and they started to swarm the Wildcat shooter whenever he touched the ball. With just over seven and half minutes to go, Blue Demons guard Willie Coleman buried a shot to put his team up twelve points. It looked like the ‘Cats were done.

One of the ways to distinguish a great player is to watch how they respond to adversity. Throughout that game, Evan Eschmeyer struggled to score. That was rare. During the 1998-99 Eschmeyer averaged more than nineteen points a game, but DePaul’s double and triple teams kept him away from the basket while they extended their lead. With his team down double digits late in the game, it would have been easy for Eschmeyer to pack it in and start looking forward to his NBA career. Instead, he railed the young Wildcats and ignited a 10-1 run by scoring three baskets to bring the Wildcats to within three points of the Demons with twenty-seven seconds left. After DePaul’s Lance Williams missed a free throw, the Wildcats got the ball to Eschmeyer with eleven seconds left. The senior star turned towards the hoop, shot, and missed. He didn’t give up though. Eschmeyer’s tenacity ignited a scramble for the ball which eventually ended up in the hands of Wildcat guard Sean Wink. Wink, who’d set the school record for three-pointers the year before, readied himself to shoot a three. He eyed the basket, took a dribble, and lost the ball off his foot out of bounds. A few seconds later, Willie Coleman calmly walked to the free throw line and knocked down two shots to seal the win for DePaul. Without a doubt, the loss was disappointing from Northwestern’s perspective, but the effort put forth by Eschmeyer and the ‘Cats to come back when it appeared DePaul was in total control made me proud to be a Wildcat fan. Also, we’ve got a much nicer arena.

Finally, last year the Wildcats played an NIT game at Tulsa. The script turned out similar to the game 10 years earlier at DePaul. Tulsa’s fans didn’t turn out in great numbers, but their team eventually built a solid lead. With just over seven minutes left, the score was 60-49 in favor of Tulsa. Like ten years before, though, a NU senior responded. Craig Moore hit two threes to help rally the Wildcats to within three points. However, just like Evan Eschmeyer, Moore’s last shot fell short and Tulsa hit free throws to ice an eventual 68-59 win.


Jared said...

Thanks for the memories. Great write-up.

I think it's sad that as a 34 year old I've seen every postseason game except the ones in 84. And that's only because I was 7 then and only being dragged to the football losses.

My favorite win in the past 20 years of season ticket-going years is still the Michigan regular season win in 94 against 3 of the "Fab 5." That game is still burned in my mind. Only reason we got to the NIT that year. And it was at home and our last chance to get over .500.

And that year (unlike this one), I was ecstatic about a NIT berth. Now I want more. Next year....

Quentin said...

Is there anyway I could get a copy of that program you show there?