Northwestern battles to the bitter end in 79-73 loss to Gonzaga

SALT LAKE CITY — Chris Collins tilted his head and opened his mouth in mock surprise. Then he rolled his eyes. Along came a bitter laugh.

Bryant McIntosh shook his head exasperatedly. Teammate Vic Law sat nearly stone-faced, the slightest hint of a sardonic smile forming at one corner of his mouth.

The three of them — a rising-star coach and two of his finest players — sat at the front of an interview room after Northwestern’s 79-73 defeat against Gonzaga in the second round of the Wildcats’ first-ever NCAA Tournament. Typically, such moments come with tears, regrets, thank-yous and promises of better days to come.

But this, the three of them sitting with media eyes on them and listening to a tournament staffer read — hot off the presses — an NCAA statement about one of the most preposterous officiating gaffes a basketball mind could conjure? It was absurd. It was ridiculous.

Vic Law was feeling it after a three-pointer as the Wildcats fought back to make a game of it against No. 1 seed Gonzaga. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

“With 4:57 remaining,” the statement began, “the officials missed a rules violation when a Gonzaga defender put his arm through the rim to block a shot.”

Really? Who knew?

The “block” by Zach Collins prevented Wildcats center Dererk Pardon from scoring to make it a three-point game. The technical foul called seconds later on Collins — for behaving like a guy who’d seen from the bench what three feckless stripes unthinkably missed — resulted in two free throws at the other end, making it a seven-point game.

A four-point swing, after all the Wildcats had done to scratch and claw their way back from 22 points down, was a crusher. There was no coming back from that, not against a team as power-packed as the No. 1-seeded Zags.

“They issued a statement,” Collins said. “I appreciate the apology. It makes me feel great.”

Ah, sincerity.

 

 

In all fairness, according to Collins, the story of the game wasn’t the officiating, but rather the Salt Lake-size hole Northwestern dug itself into in the first half. The Wildcats couldn’t shoot (1-for-11 from the arc in the half), couldn’t find any momentum and sure couldn’t stop the heavyweight Zags. After tying the game 6-6 on a McIntosh layup, they didn’t score another point for nearly six minutes; a Pardon hook shot made it 18-8. Gonzaga’s lead swelled to 22 in a half that ended at 38-20.

“I thought we were a little shell-shocked early,” the coach said.

But the Wildcats looked at one another in their locker room at the break and found determination staring back at them.

“The cornerstone of our program is never quitting,” Law said. “I don’t care how much we’re down or what the situation is. We never quit. The guys rallied around each other.”

With all due respect to Collins and to game officials Moe, Larry and Curly, the story of the game was neither the Wildcats’ slow start nor the no-call on Collins’ goaltend. The story was the way Law, McIntosh and their teammates played their best basketball all season when it would’ve been so much easier to just pack it in.

There was the Scottie Lindsey steal and dunk that made it 44-29 with 16 minutes to go, sending a surge of hope through the purple-clad fans inside Vivint Smart Home Arena. There were the corner threes by Law off slick feeds from McIntosh. There was the Nathan Taphorn long ball from straight on that finally got the deficit under 10 points with 8:43 left and, a little over three minutes later, the soaring, two-handed slam off an offensive rebound by Law that made it a five-point game.

“It was exciting,” Lindsey said. “It was what we said we were going to do when we came in at halftime.”

And it wasn’t just offense. The Wildcats’ defensive intensity nearly blew the roof off the joint.

“It was amazing,” said senior Sanjay Lumpkin of his final game. “We had a lot of energy. It was great to be a part of it.”

Easy for someone who didn’t lose the game to say, but the comeback seemed to be packed with real meaning — one of those moral victories no team seems to want to claim. Northwestern could’ve wilted. Instead, it went toe-to-toe with a heavyweight for 20 minutes and had the better of the fight. Consider it an important next step taken in the program’s rise to yearly relevance.

Law, Lindsey, McIntosh — they’ll all be back to fight again. They’ll be even more ready next time.

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com