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No. 21 Northwestern ends drought in Gator Bowl

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No. 21 Northwestern ends drought in Gator Bowl

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) The Northwestern Wildcats spent so much time celebrating on the field that coach Pat Fitzgerald finally had to order them into the locker room.

He had something special waiting for them - a stuffed monkey.

It was the same one that went with them to the Meineke Car Care Bowl last season and had become a symbol of the program's decades-long, bowl losing streak.

Fitzgerald turned his players loose on the plush toy and they destroyed it.

It was their reward for beating Mississippi State 34-20 in the Gator Bowl and snapping college football's longest postseason drought. The 21st-ranked Wildcats (10-3) hadn't won a bowl game since 1949, a nine-game skid that was tied with Notre Dame for the longest in NCAA history.

It's history now.

``We've never been here before, but now we're here and here to stay with a new streak you can talk about in a positive fashion,'' Fitzgerald said.

Quentin Williams returned an interception 29 yards for a touchdown on the third play of the game and Nick VanHoose set up another touchdown with a 39-yard interception return in the fourth. Those plays were the difference in a back-and-forth game that featured more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (six).

In between, Northwestern's two-quarterback system kept the Bulldogs (8-5) off balance most of the day.

Starter Kain Colter ran for 71 yards, making up for his two interceptions. Backup Trevor Siemian threw for 120 yards and an interception, and also ran for a score.

Even with the turnovers, they were more efficient than Mississippi State's Tyler Russell.

Russell completed 12 of 28 passes for 106 yards, with two touchdowns and a career-high four interceptions. He had only thrown six picks in the first 11 games this season.

He threw interceptions on Mississippi State's first two possessions and tossed another one early in the second quarter. After falling behind 13-0, Russell settled down and got the Bulldogs back in the game.

``I talked to him going into the locker room after the third pick, said `Go into the locker room, splash some water on your face, readjust your pads and forget that you came out to start the game,''' said coach Dan Mullen, whose team lost five of its final six games. ```Get in the tunnel, start jumping up and down again, get yourself tight and run out of the tunnel again.'''

It worked as Mississippi State tied the game at 13 in the third quarter.

On the other sideline, there had to be some sense of panic. After all, the Wildcats had blown three double-digit leads in the second half of all three of their losses this season. They surrendered big leads against Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan. So that `here-we-go-again' feeling easily could have taken over when Mississippi State seized momentum.

But the Wildcats didn't flinch. They responded with Siemian directing a 76-yard drive that put NU up for good. Tyris Jones bowled in from 3 yards out.

Siemian added a 4-yard TD run - set up by Colter's 31-yard scamper - that made it 27-13 with 26 seconds remaining in the third. That came after Russell's fourth pick, the one VanHoose grabbed near midfield.

``I feel like a big burden has been lifted off our shoulders,'' Colter said.

The Wildcats spent the final 1:42 celebrating the program's first postseason victory since beating Cal in the 1949 Rose Bowl.

They doused Fitzgerald with a water bucket, and when the game ended, they danced at midfield and then ran toward the stands to recognize friends, family and fans. Fitzgerald playfully directed the band as it belted out the alma mater.

``This one goes to all the Wildcats that have been here before us,'' Fitzgerald said. ``They've paved the way for us. ... The sky is the limit for where our program can go. ... We might not be putting the Big Ten championship trophy in our case, but we took a big step forward in accomplishing that mission today.''

The Wildcats donned Gator Bowl championship hats and posed for pictures long after the final seconds ticked off the clock.

``It's just a great feeling,'' linebacker David Nwabuisi said. ``It's unreal. It's like we keep saying, we haven't been here before. I'm kind of sad there is no confetti afterwards, but I'll deal with it. It was just good to be out there on the field as long as we wanted to.''

A few minutes later, they got to rip the monkey to pieces.

``Every time I think about this, I start to tear up a little bit,'' said Williams, who also tipped another pass that was intercepted. ``This is just a fantastic happening for our school. We've worked so hard to get to this point and it paid off. I've been here for five years and to finally get a win is just amazing.''

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Bradley Beal fouling out nearly changed the series, but Wizards rallied

Bradley Beal fouling out nearly changed the series, but Wizards rallied

After calling an inconsistent game throughout the night, the referees made a decision with five minutes to go in Game 4 that nearly altered the entire series between the Wizards and Raptors.

DeMar DeRozan was chasing a rebound on the baseline and ran into Bradley Beal. Beal, who had a team-high 31 points, was levied a sixth foul. He was out of the game with the score tied.

Beal had unloaded for 20 points in 12 minutes in the second half, but now the Wizards would have to close it out without their All-Star shooting guard. Somehow, they were able to seal the win and tie the series.

Beal heard the whistle as he laid on the ground. He immediately hopped up and unleashed a tantrum that nobody could blame him for. He jumped up and down, screaming at the referees, who had just called by all accounts a questionable foul and in a key moment of a playoff game.

Both Beal and head coach Scott Brooks were incensed and with good reason.

“I was beyond emotional, beyond mad, frustrated," Beal said. "I honestly thought they were going to kick me out of the game I was so mad, but I was happy they didn’t do that."

Beal is probably lucky the referees didn't take offense to his reaction because it continued when he was on the bench. He walked past his teammates and leaned over with his hands on his knees, still furious. Then he returned to the sideline to yell at the refs. Center Ian Mahinmi helped convince him to step back and cool off.

Beal has made a major difference in this series. He averaged 14.0 points in the first two games, both losses. He has averaged 29.5 points in Games 3 and 4, two Wizards wins.

Getting him out of the game was a major break for the Raptors, but they couldn't take advantage. The Wizards closed the final five minutes on a 14-6 tear. John Wall stepped up to lead the charge with eight of those points.

The Wizards still had one star on the court and he played like one.

“Just go in attack mode," Wall said. "When Brad went out, I knew I had to do whatever it took... I just wanted to do whatever, so that we could advance to Game 5, tied 2-2.”

Once Beal composed himself, his confidence grew in his teammates. He and Wall feel comfortable playing without each other because they have done so often throughout their careers.

This year, Wall missed 41 games due to a left knee injury. Two years ago, Beal missed 27 games. Early on in his career, he had trouble staying healthy. Now he is an iron man who played in all 82 games during the 2017-18 regular season.

Beal has grown accustomed to being on the floor a lot, but he realized he can still affect the game from the sidelines.

"I just gathered my emotions, gathered my thoughts and told my team we were going to win, regardless. I knew if we still had John [Wall] in the game I loved our chances," Beal said. "Face the adversity that I had to overcome, just gather myself and be a leader, being vocal and keeping everyone encouraged in the game.”

Wall and others did the heavy lifting in the end. The Wizards used Kelly Oubre, Jr. as the shooting guard with Beal out and he made key plays down the stretch, including a steal on Kyle Lowry in the closing seconds.

The Wizards were thrown a significant curveball and they overcame it to put themselves in good position now having won two straight.

“You have to have resolve to win in this league," Brooks said. "You win playoff games and you win playoff series with having that. We have that, and we have to continue to have that because we have to win two more games and one of them has to be on the road."

When it comes to the officiating, the Wizards deserve credit for their resilience and restraint early in Game 4. The Raptors had 16 free throws in the first quarter compared to the Wizards' four. Washington perservered and ended up with more free throws (31) than the Raptors (30) did for the game.

In Game 1, the Wizards appeared to be affected by a lack of foul calls. That came was called loosely by the referees, while this one was officiated tightly. Though Beal went off, the Wizards for the most part stayed the course and were rewarded for it.

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The Wizards supplied all the highlights and fireworks; 5 must-see moments from Game 4

The Wizards supplied all the highlights and fireworks; 5 must-see moments from Game 4

WASHINGTON -- As the home team in a dire situation you have to take advantage, and that is exactly what the Washington Wizards did in their 106-98 win over the Toronto Raptors.

Highlight reel play after highlight reel play, the Wizards ignited the crowd with some of their best plays from the entire season to make it 2-2 in the series. Here are just a few of them:

1. John Wall collects posters in the first half

The first one was perhaps the best. Everything was going wrong for the Wizards, poor turnovers, bad shots, a three from Toronto. Then John Wall had enough. Not only did he fly past his defender Kyle Lowry, but he went up and slammed one home past the 7-foot Jonas Valanciunas. Up until that point, the Wizards were shooting 1-for-7.

Rinse and repeat, except this time Jakob Poeltl was Wall’s victim.

2. Wall to Beal alley-oop in transition

With the Wizards’ offense faltering, the Raptors remained on the verge of blowing the game open throughout the second quarter. But with a steal from Otto Porter Jr., Wall hung up the ball for Bradley Beal to slam home. The alley-oop kept the Wizards within single digits in the second with an uninspiring offensive effort.

3. Otto Porter breaks out of the half

A subdued offensive start to the game was due in part to the production from Porter. In the first half he went 0-for-4 with one point in nearly 17 minutes of action.

Throw that away in the second half. He broke out of halftime with back-to-back threes and 10 of the Wizards’ 26 in a monster 26-14 run to take the lead back in the third.

He finished the quarter with 10 points, an assist, and two blocks.

4. The Polish Hammer throwing it home

Are you convinced yet that Marcin Gortat’s new haircut is doing him some good? Gortat squeezed through two Raptors’ defenders, threw it down, gave a Goliath-type roar to the crowd before officially bringing the hammer down. 

5. Beal being called for his sixth foul of the game

Agree with the call or not, there is no denying that Beal’s removal from the game lit a fire underneath the Wizards. From that point Washington went on a 14-6 scoring run to end the game, closing out for the win.

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