Northwestern holds on for wild 68-66 victory over Vanderbilt

SALT LAKE CITY — See, that’s how you do it. When you’re the last school from a major conference to play a game in the NCAA Tournament, you squeeze everything you can out of it. The good. The bad. The exhilarating. The terrifying.

Even an ending that’ll live on with the wildest, craziest March Madness has seen. Northwestern did all that Thursday against Vanderbilt — did all that and actually won.

If the Wildcats’ 68-66 victory proves to be their “one shining moment” in this year’s tournament, so be it. If the train reaches its final destination — the end of the Purple Line, call it — Saturday against West No. 1 seed Gonzaga, at least it already was a hell of a two-hour ride.

“Obviously, your stomach is churning,” said coach Chris Collins, “because you want it so badly.”

Northwestern's Bryant McIntosh celebrates after the final buzzer Thursday. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

For quite a while at Vivant Smart Home Arena, otherwise known as Welsh-Ryan West, it didn’t seem like moving on to the next round was going to be so excruciatingly difficult. After all this time, after years, decades — generations? — of playing catch-up to the rest of the college basketball world, Northwestern almost never trailed against the Commodores.

The Wildcats jumped out to a 14-5 lead. After Vandy seven-footer Luke Kornet converted an and-one to make it a 25-24 game, a five-years-in-the-making post-up by Sanjay Lumpkin, a left-wing three-pointer by Bryant McIntosh and a steal-and-score from Scottie Lindsey helped the Wildcats to a seven-point halftime lead.

In the stands, the school’s famous alumni exulted. The not-famous alumni, too. Courtside, stars from NU’s Medill School of Journalism tried to keep their professional cool. Some of them even succeeded.

Seven minutes into the second half, the Wildcats found themselves ahead by 15. If minds began to drift toward a matchup with the Zags during the ensuing timeout, it was only because it looked so completely like the game was in the bag.

“It felt like we were just ready to keep piling on them,” Lindsey said.

Yet this was the NCAA Tournament, and this was Northwestern — and that meant all the old doubts were bound to descend on the purple-clad masses eventually.

Cue the 12-0 Vandy run that made it a three-point game, and the explosive shooting by Matthew Fisher-Davis that answered Wildcats baskets time and again. The Commodores took their first lead with 1:36 to go on a three-pointer from Riley LaChance, an undersized, modestly skilled Wisconsin kid who didn’t get a scholarship offer from the Big Ten Badgers or even from Marquette.

When LaChance scored again for a one-point lead with 18 seconds to play, it appeared Northwestern was going to get bounced from the tourney by the sort of player who used to find a home on its roster.

“But we found a way to win,” McIntosh said. “And we live to fight another day.”

The decisive play that followed was so strange, and so shocking, that it could only have unfolded on the March Madness stage. As McIntosh raced up the court with the inbounds pass — again, his team trailing — Fisher-Davis fouled him. On purpose.

The poor kid thought it was his team that was down one. He’ll live with the mistake forever.

“You feel for players,” Collins said. “Especially after the kind of game he had. He was tremendous today. And certainly I was surprised because we were trying to set it up for Bryant to attack the basket. When they grabbed him in the backcourt and I knew we were in the penalty, I felt better, especially knowing who I had going to the line — our guy.”

McIntosh, the junior point guard who’d spoken only a day earlier about wanting the ball in his hands with March games on the line, calmly sank both free throws for the last of his 25 points.

On a day when junior Vic Law — the recruit who really started this all for Collins and his program — couldn’t figure things out, McIntosh picked him up throughout. As Law stumbled through the first half, Lindsey helped keep the train moving. As Law, who finished with a mere two points, failed to make any offensive impact down the stretch, big man Dererk Pardon calmly sank his last six free throws.

To Law, it was affirmation that he’d gone to the right school. Seated at his locker afterward, he shook his head and marveled about his teammates.

“I didn’t play well,” he said, “but this is why we’re a team. And now I have a chance in the next game to return the favor. I’m thankful for that.”

It’s not over yet. How about that?

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com