MADISON, Wis. — When it comes to Cinderella, everybody is so focused on the magic and the pixie dust and the dress that they’ve forgotten what’s underneath. The floor burns and the bloody elbows. The bruises on the shins and knees as purple as the piping on the jersey.
“We’re definitely a hard-nosed group of guys,” offered Northwestern forward Sanjay Lumpkin, one of the hardest noses of the bunch. “We know, especially going on the road, we’ve got to make those tough plays. We’re not going to get calls. We know, going into the game, not to expect any of that. Not to expect any respect. We got to put the refs in positions to make calls for us. Fight through all adversity. And that’s part of being tough.”
The Wildcats (19-6, 8-4 Big Ten) are not yet a team, say, a Bob Huggins could love. But like that much-coveted first ticket to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, they’re closer, on paper, than they’ve ever been.
Riding a two-game losing streak, including a kidney punch of a home loss to rival Illinois and still missing leading scorer Scottie Lindsey (15.4 points per game), the Wildcats turned up at the pitiless Kohl Center and spent 40 minutes swinging from their collective heels — stunning the No. 7 Wisconsin Badgers, 66-59, behind cold-blooded guard Bryant McIntosh (25 points, seven assists, seven rebounds) and their new secret weapon: defense.
2017’s most stylish college basketball narrative is actually rooted in substance, steel and stones. Northwestern went into the weekend ranked No. 23 nationally in defensive efficiency (.921) against Division I foes — in layman’s terms, the number of points allowed per possession. This is the domain of the Wichita States and Cincinnatis of the basketball universe, the part of the playground where fouls aren’t called unless blood is spilled and molars get mangled. The Badgers woke up Sunday ranked eighth in nationally defensive efficiency (.887).
Wisconsin lives here; it’s part of the Bo Ryan-Greg Gard DNA. For the men in purple, though, this smothering bit is all fairly new: In the previous nine seasons before 2016-17, the Wildcats’ average national rank in defensive efficiency was a meager 201.7, a byproduct of the finesse approach that leaned on variations of the 1-3-1 zone and the eternal verities of the Princeton offense.
“That’s something we feel we can really hang our hats on every game,” the 6-foot-6 Lumpkin said of Northwestern, which turned up in Madison and held Wisconsin to 44.8 percent shooting from the floor, forced 12 turnovers and outscored the bigger Badgers in the paint the tune of 26-12.
“When you’re not shooting well, one of the things you can control is playing defense.”
That and their postseason destiny. Sunday was the Wildcats’ first win against a top-10 team since 2012. And if it doesn’t punch the program’s first-ever ticket to the Big Dance, it makes falling through the trap door to the dreaded “Bubble Watch” a hell of a lot less likely. Northwestern can pound another nail in the coffin of its eternal NCAA curse when it hosts Maryland (21-4, 9-3) Wednesday at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
“This is truly one of the elite teams in the country,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said of the Badgers, who’ve now dropped consecutive meetings with the Wildcats for the first time since 1996. “Anytime you get the chance to win against a program like this, it feels really special.”
They can almost smell it now, that ticket to Bracketville. Athletic director Jim Phillips knew it, grabbing his Wisconsin counterpart, Barry Alvarez, in a warm embrace in the Kohl interview room as Collins and McIntosh addressed reporters a few feet away.
When Collins came off the stage, Alvarez reached out and gave the young coach a bear hug, too:
— Sean Keeler (@SeanKeeler) February 13, 2017
That was the single most important win in the history of Northwestern basketball. Not even close
— Dave Revsine (@BTNDaveRevsine) February 13, 2017
Care to dance, Northwestern?
— Pat Forde (@YahooForde) February 13, 2017
“We’ve done a really good job of blocking everything out for the past — however many games we’ve had,” said senior forward Nathan Taphorn, one of the role players (six points, two 3-pointers) stepping in to the void left by Lindsey’s absence.
“We’ve blocked it out for 25 games. Why can’t we block it out for six more? I mean, it’s great and everything — let the media talk about whatever it wants to talk about. But we’ve got six more games to play (in the regular season). We plan on winning six more games.”
‘I think we just played desperate’
If Sunday was any harbinger, they’re serious. Down nine at the half, the host Badgers (21-4, 10-2) opened the second period with nostrils flaring, banging out a 10-0 run over the first four minutes of the stanza. The Wildcats responded with an 8-0 run of their own, punctuated by a Derek Pardon dunk that lifted the Cats’ lead to 39-32.
“I just think we played desperate,” Taphorn said. “That’s what we needed. We talked about it all week, and that’s what we’ve got to do every game.”
An off-shooting night by the hosts was helped by a few sly chess moves on Collins’ part. The ‘Cats stuck 6-7 swingman Vic Law on a slumping Bronson Koenig, while the smaller, beefier Lumpkin bodied up on Nigel Hayes along the baseline. The end result: One of the Badgers’ best perimeter threats struggled for clean looks (1-for-8 from the floor, 0-for-5 beyond the arc) while Hayes was bumped almost every time he crashed the paint.
It was the kind of angry, coordinated defense that plays well anywhere, and the Wildcats brought out the clamps early. When Northwestern wasn’t fronting Ethan Happ, the Badgers’ engine, it was collapsing at least two big men on him instantly whenever the 6-10 forward attempted to find his bearings in the paint.
“That’s changing even more, just our defense as a whole,” Taphorn said. “No man is on an island in our defense. And it’s going to stay that way.”
With 4:06 left until halftime, the hosts had turned it over seven times to the Wildcats’ one, helping the visitors flip a 14-6 deficit into a 28-19 lead with 4 minutes left in the first period. McIntosh’s banked 24-footer with 36 seconds left pushed the Purple’s cushion to 31-22. It was the fifth Wildcats trey of the first half, each one taking a little bit of oxygen out of the Kohl Center, one dagger at a time.
After Hayes’ jumper extended the hosts’ lead to 19-12, the Wildcats went on a 16-0 run over the next 3:47, capped by Taphorn’s transition trey from the corner. Northwestern never looked back.
Or, for that matter, rattled.
“It’s just confidence,” Taphorn said. “That’s really grown on everybody. And I think coach has really instilled that in everybody, no matter who it is. For example, Sanjay shot an airball at the top of the key. Coach just said, ‘Hey. Shoot the ball.’ He knocked down a late ‘3’ there in the corner. That’s just one example. There’s so many things just about our confidence. Just shoot through (it). We’ve been working on it. We just have to trust it.”
‘We needed this game as a statement’
Lumpkin exemplifies that mindset, and that trust, as well as anyone. He turned up on campus as a skinny 185-pound swingman from Minnesota. As a senior, he’s a 220-pound enforcer, a de facto 5 one possession, a stretch 4 the next, all in the body of a muscular 3.
“I’ve put in a lot of work in the weight room in the off-season, just getting strong,” Lumpkin said. “Obviously, I play a role on this team. I’ve got to be that tough guy. I (match up) against a lot of guys that are bigger than me. I just have to prepare for that. A lot of work went into it. It wasn’t easy.”
In Mad City, nothing ever is. Northwestern had lost 14 of its previous 15 visits to Kohl’s noisy confines. Lumpkin was a central player for that last victory in January 2014, netting 12 boards in 39 minutes, but this one was sweeter.
“(Sunday) was huge for us,” he said. “Because we lost two games in a row, we knew we needed this game as a statement. For us to win against a team like Wisconsin, win at a venue like this — Kohl Center is a tough place to play, not a lot of teams come here and win. To get another win here is awesome. It meant a lot for us. We’ve just got to build on this. We knew, dropping a game at home, we had to steal one on the road. Huge win for us.”
The Badgers left the floor with shoulders slumped, fists clenched with the rage of an older brother knocked off his driveway throne. Cinderella went back to the heavy bag, pounding away like Ali of old. At long last, a dancer.