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HAWL IN: Northwestern’s magical March moment that almost didn’t happen

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EVANSTON – The one you see on television looks pretty good. It’s jsut how you’d picture a meeting of a team during a tight game.

A select group of chairs are set out about five feet from the bench, with those who’ve just left the floor getting the priority. The rest of the players stand around those who are seated, almost as if they are guarding the secrets being discussed.

The coach has his drawing board held on his lap as he crafts up the strategy, then tilts it towards his players to clue them in.

That’s usually where the cameras go when this happens in contest like the one that went down in Evanston last night. Big Ten Network indeed had their lenses on both the Northwestern and Michigan huddles with just under two seconds to go in a tie game.

Yet the one you didn’t see is the one that really mattered. Perhaps the greatest play in program history that likely brought their greatest achievement to date was determined in a quick meeting of the assistant coaches, away from the players.

“A couple of the assistants said ‘Lets not risk a turnover, lets just get it in and go to overtime and play five minutes,'” said Collins of the meeting of the minds.

Maybe that would have been the safe play – and perhaps a sensible one. The Wildcats would have to go at least 60 feet for any decent look at the basket and a turnover any closer left the team venerable to a Michigan game-winning try.

But this was not the time to be timid. Northwestern had just lost two games in the row, pushed ever closer to the bubble of the NCAA Tournament which they’d never been. History is defined by the bold – and Collins took on that role inside this huddle.

“My instincts said ‘No, we’ve got to go for it,'” said Collins to his assistants.

There might have outnumbered him, but the fourth year head coach who served as an assistant to the legendary Mike Krzyzewski at Duke before coming to Evanston showed his moxie. Collins’ vote won out and assistant coach Brian James drew up the plan for the 1.7 seconds that was eventually put on the clock.

“He drew up a great play,” said Collins of James.

The execution was exceptional. Nathan Taphorn, guarded by a man on the baseline and unable to move, hit Dererk Pardon under the opposite basket with a strike. All the center had to do was take it down, collect himself for an instant, then bank it off the backboard and in.

Christian Laettner, eat your heart out.

“It had to be an absolutely perfect pass to make that happen,” said Michigan head coach John Belien, still a bit stunned at his postgame news conference at Northwestern’s 67-65 win that likely punched their ticket to the tournament.

He should be mad at Collins.

The coach was the one who kept his team from five more minutes of basketball thanks to a bold decision then a couple of moments of mastery. But shying away from challenges isn’t what the second-generation coach is all about, showing that often during the Wildcats’ run towards the “Big Dance.”

Before his decision to go for the win late on Wednesday, Collins decided to shelve his “One Game at a Time” mantra with a more realistic approach to what was really on the line for his team the last week of the Big Ten season.

“I decided to go completely away from that, after Indiana,” said Collins of his step-by-step talk. “I came in and I challenged them and told them there was pressure. It was the first time. I said ‘Guys, there is pressure and anything good in life involves handling pressure and succeeding under pressure.'”

“So we’re not going to avoid it anymore. We’re not gonna skirt around it, we’re not gonna not talk about it. There is pressure on us. We’ve got to go out and win.”

Wednesday night, that’s exactly what happened. His team didn’t shy away from the stage and neither did Collins. A safe option presented itself before the final play, just like blowing off the pressure did before the game, but instead the coach embraced it.

While television cameras caught the glory of the pass, catch and shot, its the guts they didn’t catch from Collins that made one of the great moments in Northwestern basketball history come to pass.

And it was one helluva pass too.