Ryan Langborg’s overtime heroics for Northwestern were two Marches in the making

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BROOKLYN, N.Y. — A year ago, as the nation got swept up in the story of plucky No. 15 seed Princeton’s run to the Sweet 16, Northwestern coach Chris Collins had a front-row seat.

His Wildcats shared the Sacramento site with the Tigers, practicing and playing on parallel tracks as both teams won their first-round games and stayed through the weekend. Of course Collins understood the buzz surrounding a 15-over-2 upset. Of course he, too, was intrigued by a player named Ryan Langborg, who drained four 3s and scored 22 points to lead Princeton over No. 7 seed Missouri and into the Sweet 16. In Princeton’s three NCAA Tournament games, Langborg shot nearly 50 percent from the field.

“You’re focused on what you’re doing, but you have an eye (out),” Collins recalled Friday. “We’re all hoops junkies. So, you’re watching games and seeing what’s going on. We knew he was playing so well.”

The Ivy League has a rule that bars graduate students from playing, so even though Langborg was lighting it up — he scored 26 points in a Sweet 16 loss to Creighton — he wouldn’t be able to stay at Princeton after he graduated that spring, regardless of his attachment to the school or his rising stock.

So Langborg took to the transfer portal ahead of his final year of eligibility. Collins said he and his staff were “hoping and praying” they could land the perfect complement to the strong nucleus they had returning to Evanston. They needed a wing who could score and also defend.

Neither side could have envisioned just how productive a marriage it would be, but those vows turned into a memory of a lifetime at Barclays Center on Friday afternoon as Langborg scored a career-high 27 points — including 12 in a runaway overtime period — to lead No. 9 Northwestern past No. 8 Florida Atlantic 77-65 and into the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

“I don’t know what it is about the NCAA Tournament with Ryan Langborg, but I’m glad he’s on my team this go-around,” Collins said, smiling.

Said star guard Boo Buie, “He was balling today, man. He was balling.”

Follow The Athletic’s live coverage of the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Langborg was perfect from the field in overtime, draining four of Northwestern’s first five buckets, including two huge 3s. The 6-4 guard who usually averages 12 points per game had as green a light as Collins will give a player.

“When a guy gets going, you can see it in his eyes,” Collins said. “He was really hot. I kind of emptied my Langborg package with the playbook. … That’s how I roll as a coach. If somebody has got it going, I’m going to ride that player. That’s what I wanted when I was a player and how people coached me. If you see a guy get it going, you know you’re going to ride that hot hand, especially when you’ve got to win, when your season is on the line.”

Langborg said the biggest lesson he learned as part of Princeton’s tournament run a season ago was to stay composed, to stay calm. A shot could fall or not fall. A call could go your way or against you. But you have to stay even-keeled — and so Langborg did amid a frenetic close to regulation, as the Wildcats blew a big lead and needed Brooks Barnhizer to hit a game-tying lay-in with under 10 seconds left to force an extra five minutes.

“We stayed composed the whole way and made it easy,” Langborg said.

In the final moments, the Brooklyn crowd chanted Langborg’s name, now forever cloaked in March glory for a second school. There’s just something about this man and this month, it seems.

The Wildcats will probably need a lot more of his magic to advance past No. 1 overall seed Connecticut on Sunday, but even if the pixie dust runs out, Northwestern knows it got the right guy on the right team. He’s the hot hand the Wildcats will always want to ride.

“It was just seamless when he got on campus — it just was a fit,” Collins said. “We had a need. He fit our guys. He fit our culture, and what a great experience for him to come. The grad stuff is not easy. It’s hard. You play somewhere else four years, and now you come in and you try to step into a new program, and it’s a testament to our guys for welcoming him in, and it’s a real testament for him coming in and being a part of what we’re doing and still coming out and performing on the big stage like he did today.”

Collins paused, smiling wryly.

“I think it’s worked well for both of us,” he said.

For ticket information on all tournament games, click here.

(Photo: Robert Deutsch / USA Today)

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