Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Wildcat Flashback: NU's Best Big Ten Tournament Game

Lake the Posts recently did a post on Northwestern rather embarrassing Big Ten Tournament history. Going into Thursday’s game, NU stands at 4-12 in the Big Ten Tournament. This is by far the worst mark of any school. Those four wins were all first round games as NU has never advanced to Saturday in the tournament. Looking back over the years of the Big Ten Tournament, which started in 1998, the Wildcats best run undoubtedly occurred in 1999. Although the ‘Cats only won one game (54-44 in Round 1 over Penn State) they nearly knocked off the nation’s #2 team, Michigan State, in the quarterfinals. I would go so far as to say that the ‘Cats loss on March 5, 1999 to Michigan State was in fact their best performance in the Big Ten Tournament. What you see below is my personal story of that day. I've shared some of these thoughts in the past, but this post has some extra story. Plus, the game itself, despite being a loss, is worth remembering.

I know the obvious joke here is that Northwestern basketball has suffered so many losses that I’ve been forced to dip into that long list of defeats to find NU’s best Big Ten Tournament game, but the truth is any basketball fan that saw the Wildcats and the Spartans play that day would be hard pressed not to list NU’s performance among the most impressive they have seen.

The game was played in front of near sellout crowd at the United Center in Chicago. Sadly, despite the fact Northwestern’s campus is probably less than 10 miles from the UC very few Wildcat fans were in attendance. Perhaps the reason was because it seemed impossible for the Wildcats to pull off the upset of the 26-4 and #2-ranked Spartans. Thanks to the fact not many ‘Cats fans were present, and many Michigan State fans had apparently assumed their game against NU would such a runaway it wasn’t worth attending, the majority of the crowd at the United Center happened to be red clad Wisconsin Badger fans who had shown up early for the day’s second game.

I have to admit that I wasn’t at the game either. As a high school student at the time (and one who wanted to go to NU) I couldn’t very well walk out of school or hang out in the cafeteria missing class, plus I had baseball practice after school. Given this unfortunate, I set my VCR (it was the 20th century) and hoped nobody would tell me what happened before I got home from school and baseball practice. I wasn’t that worried. It wasn’t as if many of my friends followed the Wildcats closely. Most of the guys I was at practice with that day wouldn’t know Evan Eschmeyer from his brother Jeff even though Evan was about ten inches taller.

Given my confidence I wouldn’t find out anything until I got home and watched my tape, I was surprised when waiting for my ride home to overhear Northwestern mentioned in a conversation between my teammate, Mike Cook, and another kid waiting for a ride home.

I remember the moment clearly. I was sitting on the gym stairs looking out the double doors through a light rain waiting for my mom’s car. When I heard NU mentioned I was conflicted. I didn’t really want to know what happened, but I figured if NU was being discussed at all it meant a possible upset. After all, the only time NU gains the attention of Joe-fan is why they doing something remarkable.

As I walked over Mike pointed at me and said, “Tell him, his family has season-tickets at Northwestern.”

“It’s no big deal,” the kid said. “Northwestern played Michigan State today.”

“I know that,” I said exasperated. Who the hell did this guy think was talking to?

“Well,” he said with what I thought was an unnecessarily long pause. “The game was really awesome.”

Having never met the kid before, I assumed he wasn’t trying to drive me crazy, but he was doing a hell of a good job anyway.

“What happened?” I asked a louder than necessary.

I held my breath. Would I have reason to celebrate or reason to despair?

Finally I got my answer, “Northwestern missed a shot at buzzer that would have won the game. Michigan State won by two.”

It would be over dramatic to say I collapsed to the floor, but I do recall stumbling a little. I wasn’t sure what to feel. I was disappointed, but for NU to have some close to the upset was great achievement. I felt pride in the Wildcats effort.

“I guess it was a good game,” I said.

“It sure was,” my informant answered.

With that ringing endorsement I decided despite knowing the unfortunate result of the game I’d still watch my recording of the game. I’m glad I did. 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, Michigan State managed to scrape together five points. That was enough to secure the victory, but NU didn’t go down easy. Down two with the clocking winding towards zero, 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 Steve Lepore. After one quick dribble, Lepore leaned in over a defender and fired an off balance three point shot. To this day, I believe he came inches from changing Northwestern basketball forever.

When you’re trying to build a program goal number one is 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 right column of their record. It’s Northwestern’s 1995 football team beating Michigan or Davidson topping Georgetown in the NCAA Tournament. It might even be Northwestern basketball beating Michigan State last year in East Lansing (you could certainly argue that was a signature win), but without a doubt the loss to Michigan State on March 5, 1999 was the closest Northwestern came to signature win before last January. I’d argue it would have been far more significant that last year’s victory given the stage on which it would have occurred and what it might have setup.

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 very worried about NU’s unstoppable momentum, but the national press which such an upset would have generated might have changed how the average college basketball fan and potential recruits viewed Northwestern basketball. Unfortunately, thanks to the United Center rims, 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 edge. 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 hardwood floor.

Although it was sad to watch the ‘Cats play so well and come up short, I think my pain was eased somewhat by knowing that despite failing to achieve their signature win, NU earned the respect of the college basketball world. 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 a fantastic moment.


Jim said...

That was a nice post for a new Wildcat (first year grad student)to read. I'm glad I stumbled upon a passionate NU fan (there really are some?) and got the chance to learn a bit about the team.

Ryan said...

@Jim...glad to help. I think you'll find NU has some very passionate fans, there just aren't as many as other teams.

Dave said...

I was one of the few NU fans at that game (watching the game along with 2 MSU alum co-workers). Esch looked like a man playing among boys that game. Despite that, he did not get a touch in the final possessions of the game. I felt that it was classic KO snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.