SALT LAKE CITY — Northwestern is here. Those are its players holding the first Northwestern men’s NCAA tournament shoot-around. That’s its band behind the baseline, getting the feel of Vivint Smart Home Arena, home of the Utah Jazz and site of this strand of the West Region. That purple is Northwestern’s purple, not some other purple school’s purple.
Those are its players, seated in a row in the locker room, all part of something surely unforgettable, but two of them part of a particular unforgettable.
One, a 6-foot-7 senior born in 1994 from Pekin, Ill., south of Peoria, sits near the front.
“I kind of just kind of try to avoid it — not really avoid it, but kind of not bring attention to it,” he says.
The other, a 6-foot-8 freshman born in 1996 from Cleveland, sits about five players further down.
“When I see it, honestly, it always feels like the first time it happened,” he says.
The “it” to which they refer is the play of the year in college basketball, which happened, appropriately, at the outset of March, and happened, unfathomably, at Northwestern’s Welsh-Ryan Arena, site of nothing nationally memorable ever. With 1.7 seconds left in a 65-65 tie with Michigan at a perilous juncture of the season, that first player, Nathan Taphorn, threw the Grant Hill-plus-some pass from out of bounds on the baseline. That second player, Dererk Pardon, made a creditable catch of the 90-foot gem and scored. That ensuing bedlam, always at the ready thanks to the mercy of the Big Ten Network, will get a lot of replay for the next century or more.
“I don’t know if it really has sunk in, a couple of weeks after,” Taphorn said.
“I can still see it coming toward my face,” Pardon said.
It spent a while doing that.
As Taphorn stood primed to throw, the 6-foot-9 defender Mark Donnal hopping right in front of him, Northwestern stood 20-9. It had lost five of its previous seven. Its desperate March Madness wish had lurched into murk. Its upcoming bout with Vanderbilt here Thursday would have seemed a little vague. Michigan had just missed a chance to untie the game. A decrepit fact of sports — play it again: Northwestern was the only major-conference Division I school without a bid in the first 77 years of the tournament — seemed about ready to amass further and serious heaviness.
With the ball in his right hand, Taphorn pounded the ball into his left hand once, then did it again but more gently. He pivoted right almost as would a pitcher. He let it go, and …
“Once it left my hand, it felt good,” he said.
With that ball arcing above the court and heading toward him as it will for good in his mind’s eye, Pardon joined other witnesses with a different guess.
“At first, I thought the ball was going out of bounds, so I just tried my best, you know, to just get a hand on it so at least we could go to overtime,” he said.
Taphorn, suddenly but a spectator, remembers taking a step or two forward.
“I had a good idea of where it was going to go,” he said.
Pardon, pushing himself away from a defender seven inches shorter, began to feel hope.
“But as the ball got closer and closer,” he said, “I saw I had a chance to make a play, and so when I grabbed it and turned around, the rim was right there.”
He cradled the catch of the well-traveled ball with both hands, but the right one principally.
“Once I saw Dererk catch it I took a few more steps …,” Taphorn said.
“At that point, when I caught it, it was just instinct to turn and shoot the layup,” Pardon said. “Honestly, I didn’t realize how contested the layup was until I saw the video. Derrick Walton came over to contest the layup and even after that, Wilson came over … I didn’t know how big a play that was.”
“… And once I saw it go in I just sprinted right after them,” Taphorn said.
You can see his blond head enter the frame frantically from the right, joining the heaving blob that grew for a good minute, watched by Michigan players standing silently in their “Respect Is Earned” T-shirts. Within a second and seven-tenths in a mad country, Northwestern had won 67-65 and gone from a bit of murk to a solid NCAA Tournament team. It would get the chance to get here and then spend the rest of its lives saying it was the first to get here.
Taphorn and Pardon, meanwhile, would get the chance to be reminded of their play, probably even when they’re double, triple or quadruple their current ages.
“It happened, and it’s awesome, but I don’t like to bring a lot of attention to it, just being myself,” Taphorn said. “But it happened and it’s just kind of surreal.”
“Yeah, a couple of times, we got to certain restaurants, they’ll have ‘SportsCenter’ on, ESPN, they’ll show a collage of all the great buzzer-beaters,” Pardon said, “and great plays throughout college, and of course, that play is on there, so it’s kind of funny, kind of surreal.”