AP Photo/George Frey
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Chris Collins was right. It was goal-tending all the way.
The Northwestern coach was also wrong. At the worst time possible.
After not getting the call, Collins stomped onto the court and drew a technical foul with 4:54 left in Saturday’s game, sucking life out of a frenetic comeback that fell short in a 79-73 loss to top-seeded Gonzaga.
What a strange, heartbreaking way to close out the school’s first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Adding to the awkwardness: The NCAA released a statement acknowledging the call was missed, and Collins was sitting at the postgame news conference when he learned about it for the first time.
“I appreciate the apology,” Collins said, the venom practically dripping off his tongue. “It makes me feel great.”
Nigel Williams-Goss finished with 20 points, eight rebounds and four assists to power Gonzaga (34-1), which led by as many as 22 points in the first half, then saw the lead dwindle to five with a little more than 5 minutes left.
The arena, drenched in purple, was rocking, and all the momentum was in Northwestern’s corner.
The eighth-seeded Wildcats (24-12) got the ball down to Dererk Pardon for a point-blank shot that was on its way in. Gonzaga 7-footer Zach Collins reached up through the net and deflected the ball out. No whistle blew. Gonzaga got the rebound and started down court. Collins ran onto the court, charged toward the referee and gestured as if he were knocking a ball out of the hoop from the bottom.
An automatic “T.” The NCAA’s postgame statement also said Collins was hit with the technical for violating “bench decorum” rules by stepping onto the court with the ball in play.
On the other end, Williams-Goss made both free throws. Northwestern never got closer after that.
Regrets? If the coach had any, they weren’t apparent in the aftermath.
“If I see a guy from another team put his hand through the rim and block a shot, I’m going to react to it if the play isn’t called,” Collins said. “I think all of you would. Of course. That cuts it to three. We’re all emotional. We’re coming back from 20 down.”
What a comeback it was. Bryant McIntosh scored 13 of his 20 points in the second half and Vic Law had 15 of his 18, as Northwestern finally found an answer for Gonzaga’s quick guards and smooth-as-can-be ball movement.
Law dunked an offensive rebound to cut the deficit to 63-58, and on the other end, Scottie Lindsey swatted Williams-Goss down low to give Northwestern the ball with a chance to draw within a 3-pointer.
Pardon took a pass from McIntosh and went up strong against Zach Collins for what should have been two points. After the game, the Gonzaga center was still unclear about what, exactly, happened.
“I thought I blocked the shot and they thought it was a foul,” he said. “We weren’t really worried about (that). I honestly can’t really remember.”
Zags coach Mark Few wasn’t pinning Gonzaga’s win on that single turn of events. But he more than understood the emotion of the moment.
“You guys feel it and see it when it comes to these games,” he said. “You lose, your season’s over. You win, in Northwestern’s case, it’s probably the best thing they’ve done in the history of the school. You react spontaneously and stuff happens.”
Gonzaga is onto its third straight Sweet 16, in search of the program’s first trip to the Final Four.
Painful as the late sequence was for the Wildcats, chances are it won’t be the only thing about this magical season that they remember.
“To me, the second half is who that group was,” Chris Collins said.
But losing, especially that way?
“It stinks. That’s the part of the tournament that’s really hard,” he said.
BIG MAN SHUFFLE: The Wildcats had more trouble stopping 7-foot-1 Przemek Karnowski’s backup than Karnowski himself. The senior missed his first three shots and never got into much of a groove on the way to nine points. His backup, Collins, had 14 points, including back-to-back three-point plays that pushed Gonzaga’s lead back to 19 in the second half after it had briefly dropped to 12.
NO ENCORE: For the second straight game, McIntosh had a memorable second half, but it was the first half that made the difference. He shot only 3 for 9 in the first half, part of a 30 percent shooting effort by the Wildcats, who made only 1 of 11 from 3-point range over the first 20 minutes.
FOUL TROUBLE: Adding to their coach’s frustration: The Wildcats finished the game with 26 fouls. Pardon fouled out and three players, Lindsey, Barret Benson and Gavin Skelly, finished with four each.
NEXT UP: Gonzaga faces fourth-seeded West Virginia in the West Regional semifinal Thursday in San Jose, California.