SALT LAKE CITY — As the final horn buzzed on Northwestern’s season, the players turned attention to the sea of purple — fans that had waited literally all of their lives for the moment to see their Wildcats play in the NCAA tournament — and thanked them.
At the same time, the school’s cheerleaders and mascot, Willie, walked quietly down the hallway, Willie’s head down. An usher seated in the Vivint Arena tunnel looked up and said, “we were rooting for you guys.” Willie acknowledged the sentiment with a hug.
In a sense, Northwestern was the Cinderella darling of the Salt Lake region site — and perhaps the entire tournament to this point. The team nor the fans hadn’t been here before and they soaked up every second of it, filling Vivint Arena with purple during the first and second round. And even fans wearing all sorts of other colors, jumped in to root for the Wildcats.
“To have people kind of jump on our backs like that was awesome,” said Northwestern forward Nathan Taphorn, sitting by his locker. “Even the people who weren’t wearing purple — we had a big following out here and it means everything to us.”
The dream season, the one where Northwestern shattered the curse of being the only major conference to never have qualified for the NCAA tournament, ended in the second round Saturday with a 79-73 loss to the West Region’s No. 1 seed Gonzaga.
However, instead of sulking about a game where the Wildcats once found themselves down 22 points in the first half and whittled down its deficit to a 5-point game late, the team found itself doing whatever it could to remember its first ride to the NCAA tournament.
One player asked where his locker name tag was to ensure he didn’t leave without it. Meanwhile, a group of players huddled around a cardboard March Madness logo, each player signing it as a keepsake of the team that did what no other Northwestern team had done before that.
“Just accomplishing one of the goals we’ve set for ourselves and making the tournament was an amazing feeling,” said guard Scottie Lindsey. “Coming here and just really competing was just awesome.”
Meanwhile, on a podium in a room adjacent to the team's locker room, forward Vic Law summarized the season in a way that seemed to speak for the rest of the team.
“I think coming out to start the season nobody really expected this team or this group to really amount to anything. And to play the way we did, to fight and to come on top like we did, I mean we made history in a way that has never been done at this university,” he said. “And I think what I'll remember most is just the love that I share with my teammates, man. This is such a special moment. I don't think I'll ever forget this for the rest of my life.”
It was hard not rooting for the Wildcats. The team seemed out of it — taking 14 minutes to score its first 10 points of the game. Down 36-21 at halftime, the Wildcats made a game out it. The team kept fighting, which fans pacing around the concourse level admired as they murmured around after the game.
"To play the way we did, to fight and to come on top like we did, I mean we made history in a way that has never been done at this university. And I think what I'll remember most is just the love that I share with my teammates, man. This is such a special moment. I don't think I'll ever forget this for the rest of my life.” — Northwestern forward Vic Law
Of course, there were conversations about the officiating. Head coach Chris Collins received a technical with less than five minutes left while looking for a goaltending call that never came. The NCAA released a statement afterward stating the officials missed the call. Had the basket gone in, it would have been a 63-60 game — instead, it was a 65-58 game after the technical free throws.
Collins handled the questions about the call with class, noting that it is human to err and nothing could be done about it now.
“They made the calls. It is what it is. They issued a statement. I appreciate the apology. It makes me feel great,” he said deadpanned, the last part garnering laughter from writers in the crowd.
As for the fight back into the game, that was reminiscent of the season, said center Dererk Pardon.
“There were a lot of times during the season where we could have just laid down and not have made it this far, but we knew what we wanted to do and wanted to fight through it,” he said.
It wasn’t exactly the storybook ending that the team had hoped for, but even in the ashes of its season, there remained an optimistic outlook on the future.
Collins will have all but two of his players back next season.
With a mostly returning roster, Lindsey said it gives all the reason to believe Northwestern in the tournament isn’t a one-time novelty act.
“We’re going to build off of (this season),” he said. “We’re going to learn from the experiences we had in the tournament and use it for next year.”