The best season in Northwestern history is finished, as an attempt at derailing what could be the best season in Gonzaga history fell short.
In its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance, No. 8 seed Northwestern staged a big comeback in the second half against No. 1 Gonzaga on Saturday, but the Wildcats had too much ground to make up and couldn't quite close the gap, ultimately losing 79-73 in the second round. Gonzaga, making its 19th straight tourney appearance, moves on to the Sweet 16 for the third straight time and eighth time during the streak.
After beating Vanderbilt with the help of a mistaken foul on Thursday, Northwestern immediately hit a wall against the Zags, the Cinderella-turned-powerhouse ranked No. 1 in the KenPom ratings with only one loss all season. The Zags shot poorly in their opening win over South Dakota State, but this time they stepped on the gas from the start, racing out to a 38-20 halftime lead. With 12:59 left, they led by 20 points, a lead that appeared to be insurmountable.
Northwestern stormed back and got as close as five points, with the help of Gonzaga's 11 second-half turnovers. The rally came to a halt, however, when coach Chris Collins was called for a technical with under five minutes left. Collins stepped onto the floor to complain to a referee during play, after Dererk Pardon missed a shot in the lane. It's possible that Pardon was fouled; more egregiously, Gonzaga's Zach Collins clearly reached through the net, which went uncalled.
Pretty sure this isn't legal pic.twitter.com/M1AEM5wzSI- Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) March 18, 2017
Nigel Williams-Goss responded by making both free throws, and while Gonzaga didn't get any points on its ensuing possession, it wouldn't get closer than five -- on a Scottie Lindsey 3-pointer with 22 seconds left -- the rest of the way.
The comeback drama and officiating controversy (there was also a flagrant foul called on Barret Benson) even caused Julia Louis-Dreyfus -- mother of Northwestern walk-on Charlie Hall -- to temporarily become Northwestern's second-most famous fan, thanks to CBS' repeated camera shots of an emotional young Wildcats fan heavily invested in the game.
March Madness can get to anyone. pic.twitter.com/SX4E6wGyXO- CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 18, 2017
Northwestern scored 53 points in the second half, but its slow start proved to be too much to overcome. It got 20 points from Bryant McIntosh and 18 from Vic Law, both of whom will be back next season. In fact, after winning 24 games, including the first tournament game in the history of the program, Northwestern's best season ever could easily be topped next season, with just about everybody returning.
Merely getting to the tournament was a massive success. Adding a win checked off another historic accomplishment. Seeding the run end is tough, but there's no shame in losing to Gonzaga. Now, Northwestern will face something also new to the program: high expectations all offseason.
With Northwestern's history-making run over, attention turns to its opponent. The Zags have never been to a Final Four, and now they're two wins away from getting to Phoenix, set to face No. 4 seed West Virginia in San Jose. Northwestern was the best story of Selection Sunday and the first week of the tourney, but it bowing out now keeps the door open for Gonzaga's potential for history to become the most important story of the tournament's second week.