On Monday, the Northwestern Wildcats picked up a statement, potentially season-defining win with an upset victory over No. 22 Texas.
On Tuesday, they could’ve had another one. And they should’ve had it. But they didn’t. They led by a point with 40 seconds to play, but in the final of the Legends Classic Tournament in Brooklyn, NY, the Wildcats (3-2) were defeated by the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (5-0) 70-66.
The first half was close until three consecutive Notre Dame three-pointers in the span of 4:28 turned a 14-14 tie into a 23-14 Irish advantage with 9:22 left in the period. The Wildcats cut the deficit to four but then Notre Dame converted two separate bucket-and-foul situations to extend its lead to 32-21. But the Wildcats didn’t fold, as Jordan Ash, Nate Taphorn and Vic Law all hit from beyond the arc to make it a three-point ballgame at 1:03 to play. But then Gavin Skelly fouled Matt Farrell when he was attempting a three-point shot of his own, and Farrell sank all three free throws to give the Irish a 40-34 lead at halftime.
Notre Dame started the second half with an 8-2 run, anchored by a pair of threes from Steve Vasturia, to establish its largest lead of the night at 46-36. With NU trailing 53-45, Law hit a three and then Taphorn hit two of them to pull the Wildcats to within one at 55-54. Then, with 8:16 remaining, Scottie Lindsey rolled in a layup and Isiah Brown buried two free throws and for the first time in a long time, the score was tied, 58 apiece.
After Matt Ryan missed a three-ball for Notre Dame, Taphorn and Bryant McIntosh each made one of their own to give Northwestern its largest lead of the night, 64-58, with 6:17 on the clock. Notre Dame responded with a pair of layups, and after V.J. Beachem missed a free throw that would’ve tied the game, he instead made a dunk that gave the Irish a 65-64 lead with 3:12 to play. Northwestern then missed four shots in the next two minutes before McIntosh finally connected on a floater to give the ‘Cats a 66-65 lead with 39 seconds showing. Then Dererk Pardon grabbed a rebound off a Vasturia miss and Notre Dame started fouling. Things were looking good for Northwestern.
But then it all unraveled. Taphorn had been solid all game, giving the Wildcats a chance to win, but it was he who ultimately caused the ‘Cats to lose. With 20 seconds left it was up to him to inbound, and he threw it towards the top of the arc – where no Wildcat was present. Northwestern had two timeouts at its disposal before the inbounds pass play. But for one reason or another, Taphorn and Lindsey didn’t connect, and the ball eluded everyone in a white jersey. Instead, it found its way into the hands of Matt Farrell, and as he powered through the lane and put up a layup, Taphorn was called for a controversial blocking foul. Taphorn went to the deck, but Farrell went to the line and completed the three-point play for a 68-66 lead with 14 seconds left.
With possession and with timeouts, Northwestern had a chance to force overtime at the very least. It seemed readily apparent that the ball would end up in the hands of McIntosh, and it did – but his floater never looked like it was going to go in, and it didn’t. Farrell picked up the rebound, picked up the foul, and buried a pair of free throws to ice the win, sealing the tournament victory for the Fighting Irish in a 70-66 decision.
Nate Taphorn had his shot working in this game – all four of his makes came from beyond the arc, and he didn’t miss a three-pointer until late in the second half. His 12 points was surpassed by Law’s 14 and Lindsey’s 18 – Lindsey was an extremely efficient six-of-eight from the floor and hit all three of his shots from deep. But nearly counteracting that efficiency was a remarkably inefficient 3-of-18 from the field with four turnovers against four assists. Also notable was that Sanjay Lumpkin started the match but recorded just one shot. Pardon rounded out the offense with six points but added seven boards and a whopping six blocks.
Notre Dame featured four players in double figures, led by Farrell and Vasturia who had 18 points apiece. Farrell added six helpers and Vasturia eight boards in the win, while big man Bonzie Colson recorded 13 points and 11 rebounds. Beachem rounded out the scoring with 11 points.
Notre Dame head coach Mike Bray laughed and looked rather confident immediately following the final whistle, but this was anything but a convincing win for his club. Is this a sign of positive things to come for Chris Collins and the ‘Cats? We will see. Northwestern is back in action this Friday against Bryant before it hosts Wake Forest in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge next Monday.