SALT LAKE CITY — Northwestern's been saying all week how it deserved to be on college basketball's biggest stage.
Well it sure didn't look like the Wildcats belonged after 20 minutes on Saturday.
Gonzaga was obviously going to be a tough test, the best team Northwestern faced all season with its 33-1 record and No. 1 seed in the West Region. But the Cats were just god awful in the first half of their second-round NCAA tournament game, scoring just 20 points on 30-percent shooting, going 1-for-11 from 3-point range and trailing by 18 at halftime.
"We came out kind of dead," Vic Law said after the game.
But once the second half rolled around, Northwestern backed up its talk about belonging, its talk about believing it can compete with anyone, its talk about being so confident and wanting to win the whole thing.
After the Bulldogs' lead touched 20 again around the 13-minute mark of the second half, the Cats exploded on a 15-4 run over a little more than four minutes to cut the deficit to single digits on Nathan Taphorn's back-to-back 3-pointers. A little more than three minutes later, Law slammed home a missed Bryant McIntosh 3-point try, and the heavily pro-Northwestern crowd lost its collective mind, lead cheerleader Pat Fitzgerald jumping up and down in the aisles.
Shockingly, the Cats had chopped the Zags' 20-point lead almost all the way down.
This was a different Northwestern team from the one that stumbled through the opening 20 minutes. This was a Northwestern team that did look like it belonged on the sport's biggest stage, like it could compete with anyone. After all, the Cats were making a run no one who watched the first half expected against one of the best college basketball teams in America.
"All year, one of our things is we just don't quit," McIntosh said. "We're not going to lie down and roll over and allow people to put dirt in our grave. We're going to fight and try and dig ourselves out of this hole, and that's what we did. It shows a lot of toughness with this group."
Of course, Northwestern didn't come all the way back. After that Law dunk that got Vivint Smart Home Arena rocking, officials missed a goaltend that sent Chris Collins into complete disbelief, the Cats' head coach earning himself a technical foul that led to two Gonzaga free throws and a four-point swing that dealt a blow to Northwestern's momentum and ended up turning the game. The Bulldogs didn't lead by fewer than five the rest of the way.
But while the Cats would obviously love to be the ones booking a trip to the Sweet Sixteen right now, that comeback attempt in the second half defined a team that accomplished so much this season. This Northwestern team wanted to be different, and it succeeded, winning a program-record 24 games, scoring huge wins throughout the campaign, reaching the Big Ten Tournament semifinals for the first time, snapping a nearly eight-decade drought by finally earning the program's first NCAA tournament appearance and winning the program's first-ever NCAA tournament game.
What you saw in the second half Saturday was how these Cats managed to do all those things.
"That's what we've done pretty much all year. We won 24 games, that's a lot of wins. You don't win 24 games in the Big Ten without beating good teams and believing that you're good and being confident," Collins said. "We had a confidence coming into today. Then we got punched in the mouth early, and we had to get up off the mat and figure out if we were going to roll over or keep fighting. And I wasn't surprised that my guys fought till the end.
"I'm not surprised, but I'm incredibly proud. We looked at each other in the locker room, we knew it wasn't going well. We knew we got punched in the mouth. And we all just said, 'We're not going down like this.' I have fighters in that locker room, I have a lot of heart in that locker room, and I wasn't surprised at all by the heart they showed."
Collins' stated goal when he arrived in Evanston four years ago wasn't that he wanted to be the guy to finally get Northwestern to the NCAA tournament. Instead, he said he wanted to build a winning program, a relevant program. This season, he did get the Cats to their first-ever tournament, but it was part of a larger, four-year achievement.
Going toe to toe with Gonzaga — at least over the final 20 minutes — on Saturday, Collins' team backed up its claim that it can compete with anybody in the country, showing that this is a relevant program and doing it under the brightest possible lights.
"This is even more special than making the tournament," Law said. "To play the No. 1 seed and feel like you have the game right there, it's one of the best feelings in the world.
"I think we deserved to be here. In this locker room, we knew that from the beginning. Moving forward, we know we're a damn good team."
Law also shared Collins' postgame message:
"This is just the beginning."