Big Ten

Northwestern's wild second-half comeback try not enough as NCAA tournament trip ends in loss to Gonzaga

Northwestern's wild second-half comeback try not enough as NCAA tournament trip ends in loss to Gonzaga

SALT LAKE CITY — There will be no feeling of "oh well," inside the Northwestern locker room. The disappointment will be real.

But from outside the Wildcats' feelings of hurt after losing in the NCAA tournament and watching their season to an end, it's still incredible to think they were on this stage in the first place.

Northwestern's first-ever NCAA tournament trip came to a crazy finish Saturday, a 79-73 loss to top-seeded Gonzaga in the second round.

But the Cats put on quite the show in the second half, taking an 18-point halftime deficit and chopping it all the way down to five in front of a raucous pro-Northwestern crowd inside Vivint Smart Home Arena. Those fans went absolutely bonkers when Vic Law put back a missed Bryant McIntosh 3-pointer to make it a five-point game.

That was as far as Northwestern got in its comeback quest, though. Chris Collins followed that Law slam with a technical foul that gave Gonzaga two free throws and stopped Northwestern's scoring run. From there, the Zags didn't trail by any fewer than five.

But getting that close was a shock for those who watched Northwestern struggle to do much of anything in an ugly first half. Some cold shooting by Northwestern and some excellent defense by Gonzaga combined to make things real tough early for the Cats. The Zags broke away from a 6-all tie with 12 straight points as the Cats went scoreless for more than five minutes. The Gonzaga defense was terrific at getting its hands in the passing lanes and forcing turnovers, turning three early ones into seven points. Nothing was going right on the offensive end for Northwestern as it continued to miss the vast majority of the shots it took. The Cats started just 6-for-24 and a nasty 0-for-10 from 3-point range, needing 14 minutes just to reach a double-digit point total.

The lead ballooned out to 20 when Nigel Williams-Goss came up with the most emblematic moment of the half, picking Sanjay Lumpkin's pocket and taking it down for an uncontested dunk with a little more than three minutes till the break.

All in all, the ugly first-half numbers looked like this: Northwestern scored 20 points, was 9-for-30 from the field (30 percent), shot 1-for-11 from 3 (9.1 percent), turned the ball over eight times leading to nine Gonzaga points, was beat on the boards 24-17 and got a combined 12 points on 5-for-20 shooting from its top three scorers, McIntosh, Law and Scottie Lindsey. The Cats bested their lowest-scoring half of the season by just two points.

As ugly as that first half was, though, Northwestern came out with a purpose to start the second half, and its fans were making a whole ton of noise when Lumpkin stole the ball and slammed it to cut the deficit to 15 in the half's first four minutes. A Law 3 a little later sliced the gap to 12, capping a 7-0 burst, but Gonzaga punched back with an 11-3 surge of its own and again led by 20 with about 13 minutes to play.

Minutes later, the Cats had chipped away again, capitalizing on a long basket-less stretch by the Zags. Nathan Taphorn 3s on consecutive trips down the floor sandwiched around a Gonzaga free throw and had Northwestern within single digits at 59-50. McIntosh got it back to a nine-point game with under seven to play and knocked down a pair of free throws on the next trip down the floor to make it a seven-point game. Then the Northwestern fans in the building exploded into complete madness when Law put back a McIntosh miss with a thunderous tip slam. That cut the deficit to five with five and a half minutes to play.

But Collins earned himself that technical foul moments later, running at an official and screaming over the lack of a goaltending call. The Zags got two free throws to extend their lead to seven, and they didn't lead by fewer than seven until a McIntosh triple cut it to six with under a minute and a half to play. A Lindsey 3 made it a five-point game, but that was fewer than 20 seconds to go.

As of three days ago, Northwestern had never played in an NCAA tournament game, let alone win one. Thursday's victory over Vanderbilt checked both those boxes in the penultimate game of a season where the Cats posted a program-record number of wins, reached the semifinal round of the Big Ten Tournament for the first time, scored some major victories and experienced the extreme joy of Selection Sunday for the first time.

Northwestern had to watch as Gonzaga celebrated advancing to the Sweet Sixteen. And despite all that was working against Collins when he took the head-coaching job in Evanston four years ago, it's not anymore difficult to imagine his Cats getting their shot at a Sweet Sixteen in a season in the near future.

While much of the postgame analysis will be reflective on the stupendous work Collins did this season and in the past four seasons, looking ahead should bring a smile to Northwestern's fans' faces, too. The vast majority of this roster returns for 2017-18, and it would not be a surprise to once again see the Cats among the Big Ten's best next season.

The hurt of an ended season will likely dominate the Cats' postgame remarks, this first tournament trip suddenly over. But there's never been a better time for Northwestern basketball.

Pat Fitzgerald, Lovie Smith in top 10 of an intriguing college coach list

Pat Fitzgerald, Lovie Smith in top 10 of an intriguing college coach list

Northwestern and Illinois’ college football programs are ranked in the top 10 this year.

Kind of.

One esteemed name in the college football ranks has placed Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald atop the list of the all-time greatest college coaches…ranked as players. Illini coach Lovie Smith ranks at No. 10.

Rich Cirminiello, Director of College Awards for the Maxwell Football Club, compiled the list and he is an excellent follow on Twitter. He has several other noteworthy lists of interest, including the top college football players who are now coaches in the NFL. Psst…spoiler alert: several local connections are on that particular list as well, including Saints head coach Sean Payton (QB, Eastern Illinois) and Ron Rivera (LB, California).

But back to Coach Fitz, who bleeds purple and has emphatically put the NU football program on the map since the mid-90s. He was a two-time All-American in addition to receiving consecutive Bronco Nagurski, Chuck Bednarik and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors as a linebacker (1995-96). He helped guide the Wildcats to the ’96 Rose Bowl. Since becoming the team’s head coach in 2006, he has led the program to nine bowl games (four wins).

We all know Lovie Smith’s coaching legacy with the Bears and his rebuilding of the Illinois football program, but did you know how much he dominated as a college player? He played for Tulsa from 1976-79, racking up 367 career tackles primarily as a safety. He was a three-time All-Missouri Valley Conference award winner and earned a second-team All-America mention in 1978. He was also named MVC Newcomer of the Year after he tallied 90 tackles as a freshman.

[MORE: Lovie Smith, Mike Tirico discuss systemic racism 

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, who passed for over 11,000 yards in seven seasons as a Chicago Bear, ranked No. 2 on Cirminiello’s list. In a follow-up tweet, Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck, who dominated as a wide receiver at NIU and at nearby Kaneland High School, came in at No. 20. Western Michigan’s Tim Lester —a star player at Wheaton Warrenville South HS— is in at No. 7.

Who said that the Land of Lincoln didn’t have top college football talent?

Northwestern Wildcats athletic department begins phased return to campus

Northwestern Wildcats athletic department begins phased return to campus

Professional, collegiate and prep sports have been on hold in Illinois since mid-March but it looks like there may be more light at the end of the tunnel. This time, in Evanston.

Northwestern University announced Thursday that a phased reopening of the athletic department, in tandem with NU’s overall policy for a return to campus, will include student athlete workouts on Monday June 22.

The relaunch of athletics at Northwestern during the COVID-19 pandemic comes as the state of Illinois is progressing in its own planned reopening, as dictated by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

The sports medicine staff, athletic trainers and student-athletes with post-injury needs were welcomed back earlier this month and other select groups will be admitted back to campus next week.

Athletes will be required to complete a full physical upon arrival in Evanston on June 22. They will be screened before entering on-site facilities by means of a wellness check and a no-touch temperature scan.

Facility access will be managed through one entrance and exit. Locker facilities and lounges will remain closed, though, along with dining centers.

[MORE: Shortened NFL preseason puts big group of players at a disadvantage]

The Wildcats football team, along with both the men’s and women’s basketball programs, are penciled in to begin those voluntary workouts a week from Monday. Each unit should have plenty of motivation once they hit the playing surface.

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald and company are eager to put last year’s 3-9 mark behind them. On the hardwood, Chris Collins’ group needs a quick bounce-back after an 8-23 mark last season while the women’s team, under the tutelage of Big Ten Coach of the Year Joe McKeown, are looking to build off a stellar 2019-20 campaign. They won the their first conference championship since 1989-90 and boasted a school record 26 wins.

 

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