SALT LAKE CITY — Welcome to our annual national perversion, Northwestern. You see now how it works. You might even think your school wise to have stayed out of it the first 77 years.

You spend a Thursday afternoon in a cauldron with a team you haven’t seen all year. The lead changes hands six times in the final 1:36. The score goes from 61-59 to 62-61 to 63-62 to 64-63 to 65-64 to 66-65 and to 68-66.

The whole thing turns with 14 seconds left on a college student’s mistake every nut in the arena can recognize.

The student did something so human as having the wrong score in his head as he misread his coach’s instruction. That’s it. That’s all.

Now he sits in a locker room devastated to silence, some players covering their faces. Asked whether he thinks more of his 22 flashy points that rescued his team back into contention or his closing mistake when he quickly fouled Bryant McIntosh of Northwestern with 14 seconds left, Matthew Fisher-Davis of Vanderbilt says, “Just the mistake.”

“You can’t make a mistake like that,” he says. Asked if he thought his team trailed by one point instead of the blurry reality of leading by one, he says, “Yeah, I did.”

Recounting the play and his coach’s instruction from the sideline, he says, “He said to pick up the point guard, and I took it the wrong way.”

Just a blip after Vanderbilt went ahead 66-65, Fisher-Davis fouled McIntosh, the game’s best player and Northwestern’s best foul shooter, well before McIntosh reached midcourt. Rather than Northwestern conducting an offensive play in the tension, McIntosh just walked to the line. He made both.

From there, Vanderbilt point guard Riley LaChance let fly a 3-point shot he is capable of making, but 25-foot 3-point shots are fickle, and so this last one bounced high off the rim, took its time staying in the air and wound up out of bounds for a Northwestern possession with one second left.

Northwestern won and felt sorry – for Fisher-Davis.

“Absolutely,” Northwestern forward Gavin Skelly said.

“You kind of feel bad for them,” McIntosh said.

“That was confusing for me,” Skelly said. “I’m a very energetic and emotional guy. So, highs and lows, highs and lows, and they fouled (McIntosh) with, I think, 15 on the clock. And I was kind of, ‘Wait, are we up one?’ So I was looking at the score and making sure I felt that we were in the right position. We were down one. I was really confused because, ‘Why would they put our best free-throw shooter at the line?’ But then I realized it was a mistake.”

“When he grabbed me, I was kind of surprised,” McIntosh said.

That’s our savage March for you, Northwestern. It always reserves its right to drape athletic competition in outright lunacy.

“That’s why they call it March Madness,” Skelly said. Guess he must know.

Northwestern now has a compelling match upcoming Saturday with No. 1 seed Gonzaga, and the West Region got an arena hallway with a devastated team on one end and McIntosh on the other, saying, “Our heart’s still beating.”

The Wildcats also got a whole helping of March Madness, right in its first-ever classroom.

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