SALT LAKE CITY -- As the Northwestern locker room began to empty a bit Saturday, it was players -- not reporters -- walking up to one another and asking questions.
“Can you sign this? Do you have a pen? Do you want one?”
They walked around with March Madness signs that had been up in their locker room, large purple “N” placards that had hung above each locker and other memorabilia from what had been an extra memorable week for the Wildcats. Silver Sharpies made their way from player to player, each one signing his name on another’s chosen artifact.
“I’m never letting this one go,” freshman Rapolas Ivanauskas said as he clung to an NCAA sign.
Senior Nathan Taphorn -- who had hit clutch late 3s to cut into Gonzaga’s lead, which was ultimately too much in a 79-73 second-round loss -- looked around for a towel or anything with the NCAA logo on it. Perhaps he would stash it in his travel bag and use it in the future. Or not. Maybe it would just stay with him.
It’s not hard to understand why this team, now picking apart its locker room to soak up every last drop of its March Madness run, had become the easiest team for which to root over the past two weeks.
The Wildcats, making their first trip to the NCAA tournament, had been labeled as a March Madness Cinderella and a David (to top-seeded Gonzaga’s Goliath). They had been asked about their academic standards before their first-round game versus Vanderbilt -- another renowned academic institution -- and this week's midterm exams.
And they had worn those labels and answers proudly. They became the lovable group from outside of Chicago with famous alumni and more famous parents, but they were, up to this point, the team with no true basketball legacy or much of a history.
And though few folks in Vivint Arena could probably name five players from Northwestern history (or its current roster, for that matter), as the Wildcats came out of halftime facing an 18-point deficit -- refusing to play on their heels as they did in the first half -- the entire arena decided that they, too, were Wildcats.
When Taphorn hit his late 3 and threw up the “3-stache” mustache, or when point guard Bryant McIntosh started to look like his old self, or when the Wildcat defense started to click and the Gonzaga turnovers started to materialize, the arena’s “Let’s go, Cats!” cheers started to grow in number.
There was the family in Oregon Ducks gear behind Gonzaga’s basket, the man in the Real Salt Lake uniform, the woman in the Utah Jazz jersey, the elderly man in the Idaho long-sleeve, the little boy in the BYU T-shirt -- all of them were on their feet for Northwestern.
“In all of these games, I feel like Northwestern has had the most fans,” sophomore forward Vic Law said. “We’ve had the best atmosphere of the teams.”
And that support was never more obvious than when the Wildcats had cut Gonzaga’s double-digit lead to five with about five minutes to go. McIntosh drove the lane and dumped it off to Dererk Pardon, who had his dunk attempt stuffed ... by a player with his hand through the hoop. The refs missed the call and then issued a technical to Northwestern coach Chris Collins for his reaction.
It was a four-point swing for which the NCAA would later apologize.
And as the moderator read the NCAA’s statement about the missed call, Collins sat at the podium and allowed his face to tell his version of the story. It was anger and frustration and shock and surprise.
Eventually, he’d say that he appreciated the apology.
“It makes me feel great,” he said to laughter.
That missed call, which may or may not have eventually turned the outcome of this game and been the difference between signed placards for Northwestern and a trip to the Sweet 16, was a difference-maker in the game.
But that’s how March goes. Some calls and plays go your way -- like the late foul that helped push Northwestern past Vanderbilt in the first round -- and others don’t. You stick around long enough, and you learn that.
And Northwestern -- with solid talent returning and a coach who made history this year -- will look to do that. Collins hasn’t just built a program that will surface for a season. Chicago’s Big Ten team will return home as a Cinderella and a David who almost slayed Goliath in March.
And the freshman Ivanauskas never has to let go of his teammate-signed March Madness memento, but he probably also needs to make room for signs from upcoming tournaments.