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SALT LAKE CITY — Already stomping mad after several borderline calls went against his team, Chris Collins simply couldn’t stomach another one.
The Northwestern coach ran onto the floor wildly gesturing for goaltending after Gonzaga center Zach Collins illegally put his right hand through the cylinder of the rim while rejecting a Dererk Pardon dunk attempt.
The technical foul Collins received proved to be the biggest sequence of top-seeded Gonzaga’s 79-73 second-round victory over ninth-seeded Northwestern on Saturday in Salt Lake City.
Had Pardon’s dunk counted, it would have sliced the Zags’ 19-point second-half lead to three with five minutes to go. Gonzaga’s Nigel Williams-Goss instead sank two free throws to push the lead to seven and the Wildcats never again got as close as five until less than 20 seconds remained.
Northwestern's coach got a tech for this, but he has a point ???? pic.twitter.com/9xFS9n5ves
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 18, 2017
“We had all the momentum,” Collins said. “A guy puts his hand through the rim. It’s a very easy call in my opinion, but it’s an honest mistake. Referees are human beings. They’re here for a reason because they’re outstanding officials. They made a call, so we’ve got to live with it. Do I think in my heart if Dererk gets that call and we cut it to three that we have a great chance to win? Yes, I believe we have a great chance to win if the correct call is made.”
The NCAA subsequently issued a statement admitting that the referees erred and basket interference should have been called on Collins. Of course, that was little consolation to Collins, who smirked as the statement was read aloud before his news conference and later sarcastically responded, “Makes me feel great.”
The blown call doesn’t excuse Collins’ inability to control his emotions at a juncture when his team was scratching for every point. He left the refs little choice but to assess a technical given the way he ran onto the floor in protest while Gonzaga was trying to dribble up court.
Collins had been in jeopardy of receiving a technical several previous times during a game rife with dubious calls that affected both sides. Asked if he wishes he had toned down his reaction given how much his technical seemed to swing momentum, he chose instead to defend his exuberance.
“If I see a guy on the other team put his hand through the rim and block a shot, I’m going to react to it,” Collins said. “If the play isn’t called, I’m a human being. I think all you guys would.”
The critical technical foul is a bitter ending to what was otherwise the sweetest season in Northwestern basketball history. The Wildcats ended their 78-year NCAA tournament drought, won a hard-fought first-round game against Vanderbilt and stormed back from a nightmare 34-12 start to push one-loss Gonzaga to the final minute.
The seeds of Northwestern’s second-half comeback were planted during a rousing halftime speech from Collins. Frustrated that his team had become passive and tentative at both ends while shooting 9 for 30 from the field against a rock-solid Gonzaga defense, Collins urged his team to get more aggressive and go down swinging.
“Coach basically just came in and said, ‘Either we’re going to lay down and let this team blow us out or we’re going to be the team we’ve been all year and fight,'” Pardon said. “You saw what we chose.”
Northwestern’s perimeter corps fueled the rally, Bryant McIntosh scoring 13 of his 20 points after halftime, Vic Law adding 15 of his 18 in the second half as well and Nathan Taphorn hitting a pair of big threes. The Wildcats were aided by a purple-tinged crowd that stood and roared with each bucket, each rebound and each defensive stop.
Before the missed goaltending call and the ensuing Collins technical, Northwestern had been in the midst of a 24-10 surge. Nonetheless the Wildcats players to a man refused to blame that momentum swing for their loss.
Said forward Sanjay Lumpkin, “[Collins] was just fighting for us.”
Said guard Scottie Lindsey, “I don’t think it was that big of a deal.”
Said Pardon, “Coach was just fired up like we were. I think he felt like we needed an energy boost.”
Credit the Wildcats for refusing to make excuses, but there’s no denying the impact the four-point swing had. Not even two minutes later, Gonzaga had extended its lead back to 10 after a layup from Jordan Mathews and a short jumper by Collins.
Gonzaga’s victory ensured that Mark Few and his staff would not leave Salt Lake City with a sickening case of déjà vu. The only other time the Zags received a No. 1 seed, they were abruptly ousted in the second round in this same arena by a Final Four-bound Wichita State team that knocked down 14 threes that day.
Now safely through to the Sweet 16 for the third consecutive season, Gonzaga will meet fourth-seeded West Virginia in San Jose on Thursday night. A victory in that game would leave the Zags one win away from their long-awaited first Final Four in program history.
Having this dream season end so abruptly is difficult for Northwestern, but the Wildcats can take solace in all they accomplished.
No longer is Northwestern a college basketball laughingstock. Never again will the Wildcats have to hear about being the only major-conference program in college basketball that hasn’t experienced the big stage of the NCAA tournament.
“To me, the second half tonight is who that group was all year long,” Collins said. “I loved coaching them. I told them in the locker room. They took me on an amazing ride this year.”
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