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.

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings


See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?