Northwestern Wildcats fans, past and present, have been waiting for this moment for a long time and despite the team taking the loss, they did not disappoint.
This game was the epitome of a tale of two halves and despite fighting back, making for an intriguing finish, the Wildcats came up short. The No. 1 seeded tournament Gonzaga Bulldogs (34-1) controlled every aspect for a duration of the game and eventually escaped with the victory, but the Wildcats did not make it easy.
What We Learned
1. A Tale of Two Halves
The perennial tournament-bound Bulldogs came out of the gate scoring and frustrating the Wildcats with their suffocating defense. At times it seemed like Northwestern didn’t belong in the same gym as the Bulldogs. Northwestern was held to just 20 points and the Bulldogs took an 18 point lead into the half. The game was looking very bleak for the Wildcats.
But whatever was said to the team at halftime by Wildcats head coach Chris Collins lit a fire under them, because a different Northwestern took the court in the second half as they rallied back into the game.
The team rode the backs of their top three scorers in sophomore Vic Law and the two juniors Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey. Northwestern not only got great scoring chances for those guys and a few others, but the team locked in defensively and shut Gonzaga’s offense down during key stretches of the rally.
A game like this could only be elevated by controversy and we got it late in the second half from a basket interference by a Gonzaga defender who put his hand through the rim to block a shot. The non-goaltending call is being seen as the one moment that changed the momentum of the game in the Bulldogs favor, even more so that Chris Collins got nailed for a technical when he ran out onto the court to contest the call.
ESPN’s SportsCenter account tweeted out how NCAA officials judged the call:
The NCAA says officials erred by not calling basket interference & goaltending by a Gonzaga player late in 2nd half. https://t.co/yvUoZhQjjp— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) March 19, 2017
Whether you believe it changed the game or not, it was a significant play late in the game. Northwestern put a ton of energy into coming back and though they cut the lead to single digits, late misses down the stretch and key free-throws by Gonzaga eventually sealed the game.
The final score was 79-73.
McIntosh led the way in scoring with 20 points, Law got 18 points and eight rebounds and Lindsey added 12 points.
2. Gonzaga flaws are more clear
Gonzaga is moving on to the Sweet 16, but Northwestern exposed the flaws in the Bulldogs that could be likely exploited against a team as polished as Bob Huggins No. 4 seeded West Virginia squad.
Gonzaga struggled when Northwestern started playing suffocating defense, contesting shots and challenging everything the Bulldogs tried to do offensively. They also could not slow down when the Wildcats started rolling on offense due to their offensive moment and versatility.
West Virginia is not only of the most versatile teams left in the tournament, but they can score as well as anybody in the country. With at least four people scoring in double figures, during the first two rounds of the tournament, West Virginia is a matchup nightmare waiting to happen. Northwestern does not have the depth that West Virginia has and with that luxury, it will make it tougher for the Zags to contain like they were able to with Northwestern.
Gonzaga will play West Virginia to win a spot in the elite eight on Thursday March 23 in San Jose, California.
3. Can Northwestern make this more than a one-hit wonder?
The Wildcats obviously didn’t want to end the season like this, but after enjoying what is undoubtedly the best season in school history, what’s their trajectory for the future?
Suffice it to say, the program is headed in the right direction.
With their top three aforementioned scorers most likely set to return next season, the team must find a way to learn from this loss and continue building the culture of what defines Northwestern basketball. Making their first tournament in school history is a huge step in the process, but to be more than a one-hit wonder, consistency plays a huge part.
The turnaround from this team was a gift for Northwestern fans, but the expectations to follow up the 24-12 season record will be apparent and this team is capable of delivering from this year’s success.
But until then, Collins’ Wildcats deserve to enjoy this rare feat accomplished in 2017.