The atmosphere inside Northwestern University’s Welsh-Ryan Arena was intense Sunday afternoon as fans of all ages celebrated the men’s basketball team advancing to the No. 7 seed for its second NCAA Tournament appearance.
The team, which last made the tournament in 2017, will take on No. 10 seed Boise State in Sacramento, Calif., on Thursday. Northwestern senior Andrew Young bought a return plane ticket for spring break this week and plans to trade it in to go to the game in person.
“The way they’ve had tough years in the past and the way they’ve stuck together and stuck with the coach, it’s just great. I am happy for them. And to have that as a senior, it’s really special,” Young told the Tribune.
[ Column: NCAA Tournament brings a fresh start for No. 7 seed Northwestern and No. 9 seed Illinois ]
Shortly after the doors to the arena opened at about 2:30 p.m., fans streamed inside, their purple gear blending in with the bleachers and seats. The sounds of trumpets, clarinets and saxophones of the university orchestra could occasionally be heard.
The crowd watched intently on the big screens for the televised game between Purdue and Penn State, against which Northwestern lost a Big Ten tournament quarterfinal on Friday.
Junior Vir Patel, wearing purple heart-shaped sunglasses, said the loss hurt, but the team gave fans hope and magic.
“They did what they do best: they worked hard on defense and they played hard,” he said. “And that’s what we love about this team is that they never quit. They’re never going to give up on us … Let’s hope everything goes well today and let’s hope they keep their heads in March because we’ve got a long way to go.”
As they waited and ate Raising Cane chicken fingers, juniors Sarah Fazio and Kathryn Chen reflected on the Wildcats’ loss to the Nittany Lions, a game they attended at the United Center.
“I wouldn’t say it makes me nervous for March Madness, but it was definitely a good learning opportunity,” Fazio said. “I think we struggled a little bit offensively, but we made a lot of really good plays defensively.”
Chen said she wasn’t too worried either. “We’re really excited to be here at Welsh-Ryan cheering on the Cats, and I have a lot of faith in our team to do well this year,” she said. “It’s been a really rewarding season … It’s been so exciting to see the whole school and the whole team so excited after the season.”
[ Northwestern loses to Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals, falling 67-65 in overtime: ‘We’ve got to play better’ ]
Ahead of Sunday’s election announcements, Billy McKinney — former Wildcat and NBA player and current Zion mayor — took the microphone to thank everyone who has ever worn a Northwestern basketball jersey and how they have represented the university.
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“We know the best is yet to come,” he added to a standing ovation from the crowd.
The coaching staff, players and coach Chris Collins took the field to strobe lights, smoke and thunderous applause.
“What a great day to be a Wildcat,” Collins said.
[ Column: Chris Collins’ journey from Bulls ball boy to Northwestern coach brings him to the United Center ]
It was a grueling wait with fans on the edge of their seats listening intently to the NCAA Men’s Tournament announcements. The crowd erupted in applause, white and purple confetti raining down on them as the screens showed that Northwestern had drawn the No. 7 seed and would play against No. 10 Boise State on Thursday.
“It’s amazing to see everyone come out; I am so glad. It’s amazing. I’m looking forward to watching the game,” senior Lisa Healy said. “I remember coming to these games my freshman year and nobody showing up; it was always pretty empty. It’s amazing to see how it’s completely turned around and all the support from the team.”
The basketball team huddled on the court, sharing hugs and fist bumps. “When, here we go, baby!” Collins shouted.