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.