The Northwestern Wildcats beat the Vanderbilt Commodores on Thursday in the NCAA tournament, 68-66. It was a fun game, but the close final score doesn’t quite convey just how bananas the last 20 or so seconds of the contest were. I’m going to try.
First, some context: Northwestern had a 15-point lead with 13:41 left on the game clock. The Wildcats were in position to cruise home. This was pretty cool, because this game was the program’s first ever in the Big Dance. The Wildcats looked primed to spend the last 10 minutes of the game having a party on their bench.
But Vanderbilt charged back, and we wound up getting an outrageous finish that will leave VU fans distraught, and NU fans elated, for a good while to come.
1. Vanderbilt took its first lead with 1:36 left to play, then lost it.
Not technically its first lead, but its first since the score was 5-4. That kicked off a series of basket-trading where Northwestern and Vanderbilt swapped one-point leads.
Bryant McIntosh answered with a jumper for Northwestern at the 1:12 mark, taking NU to a 63-62 lead. Then Jeff Roberson answered to make the score 64-63 Vanderbilt, and then two Dererk Pardon free throws on the other end put NU back up, 65-64.
2. Vanderbilt got the lead back with 18 seconds left.
Guard Riley LaChance got to the basket and scored on a layup. That gave Vanderbilt the latest one-point lead, and it set up what looked like a simple finish.
3. When you’re up one with 18 seconds left, you’re supposed to avoid one thing.
You’re not supposed to send the other team to the free throw line.
With so little time on the clock, defenses are sort of playing six-on-five, with the clock working as an extra defender. It’s an inopportune time to give the other team a chance to score with the clock stopped and, for that matter, no defenders.
4. But Vanderbilt didn’t avoid that one thing.
Northwestern inbounded after LaChance’s basket, trailing by a point. Matthew Fisher-Davis looked toward his head coach, Bryce Drew, who appeared to point at McIntosh.
Maybe Fisher-Davis took Drew’s point at McIntosh to mean “foul him.” Because that’s what Fisher-Davis did, intentionally hacking McIntosh with 15 seconds left.
In college basketball, every foul starting with a team’s seventh of a half means free throws for the opposition. Northwestern was already in the bonus. Fisher-Davis’ foul automatically sent McIntosh to the line, where he makes better than 80 percent of his free throws. It was the absolute worst thing Fisher-Davis could’ve done.
Fisher-Davis in Vandy locker room didn't offer a great explanation other than: "I made a dumb-ass foul."— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) March 16, 2017
5. McIntosh made two free throws, because that’s what he does.
Northwestern was back ahead, 67-66.
6. Vanderbilt had one last shot, and a three-pointer didn’t go.
LaChance gave it a good effort, but the ball didn’t go through the circle.
After a foul, Northwestern hit one more free throw. Vanderbilt didn’t have enough time to get a real shot, and the game ended.
In the last 96 seconds of the game, the teams swapped leads six times. The last came because of a devastating mental error, and Northwestern came out on the happy side.