Showing the defiance his team displayed in the second half, Northwestern coach Chris Collins left Vivint Smart Home Arena convinced Gonzaga's 79-73 victory Saturday came as a result of officials ignoring a basket interference call that led to a momentum-changing technical foul.
It stung Collins even more knowing he never will know if he was right. None of us will.
"Do (I), in my heart, think if Dererk (Pardon) gets that call and we cut it to three, we have a great chance to win?'' Collins asked. "Yes, I believe we had a great chance to win if the correct call was made.''
With 4 minutes, 54 seconds left and Northwestern trailing 63-58, Gonzaga 7-footer Zach Collins put his arm through the basket to block Pardon's dunk attempt, but officials unbelievably called nothing and Collins went berserk. He drew a technical, and instead of Northwestern cutting the lead to three, Gonzaga hit both free throws to make it 65-58.
At the postgame news conference, a moderator read an NCAA statement that declared it a bad call as Collins sat nodding and making facial expressions of disapproval upon hearing the explanation.
"I appreciate the apology,'' Collins said, his words dripping with sarcasm. "It makes me feel great.''
Collins' technical didn't help, but his "T" didn't blow the game for Northwestern either. On one hand, not even a coach as emotional as Collins can afford to cost his team two points in a close game by receiving an unacceptable technical. But, on the other, how do three officials on the court miss what was so obviously goaltending in an NCAA tournament game? That was just as inexcusable as Collins charging the floor, bad followed by worse. But to say that sequence altered the outcome diminishes the way Gonzaga regained its composure.
Not that anything will console Collins, who will need awhile to process this loss.
"The guy puts his hand through the rim,'' he continued. "It's a very easy call in my opinion. But it's an honest mistake. Referees are human beings, they're here for a reason. They're outstanding officials. They made the calls. We have to live with them.''
Can Collins live with his outburst?
"If I see a guy from another team put his hand through the rim and block a shot going through the basket, I'm going to react if the play isn't called,'' Collins said. "I'm a human being. I think all of you would. ... We're all emotional.''
Understandably, the emotions came pouring out in the final seconds as Collins substituted the rest of his starters after Pardon fouled out.
First, senior Sanjay Lumpkin, in his last game, held an embrace with Collins for a moment that lingered. Next was Bryant McIntosh, the plucky point guard who struggled shooting 6 of 19. Then Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey slowly exited the court.
All of the Northwestern players hung their heads approaching Collins. All of them can hold them high.
At one point in the first half, Gonzaga led by 22. Northwestern never quit, coming as close as five in the second half, when they outscored the West's No. 1 seed 53-41.
"To me, the second half is who that group was all year long,'' Collins said. "A lot of teams would have rolled over at halftime.''
Indeed, Northwestern played so poorly in the first half that Illinois fans were mocking the Cats on social media.
Northwestern missed 12 of its first 16 shots and 10 of its first 11 3-pointers, looking tighter than the Wildcats did in the first-round victory over Vanderbilt. Too many of Northwestern's offensive possessions looked rushed, too many shots aimed. If McIntosh penetrated past his man, he ran into impenetrable 7-foot-1, 300-pound Przemek Karnowski, the 23-year-old Polish punisher.
"I thought we were shell-shocked early,'' Collins said.
The frustration spread from the court to the bench to the seats, with even Willie the Wildcat shaking his head in disgust. John Phillips, the son of Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips in a No. 4 jersey, received as much air time on CBS as Julia Louis-Dreyfus and agonized over every possession.
If the game were a fight, they would have stopped it in the first half.
Good thing they didn't, because the Cats clawed their way back and revealed their character. What changed?
"We played desperate,'' McIntosh said.
During a mini-run early in the second half, Lindsey exhorted Northwestern fans to stand up and shouted, "It isn't over!" After a Lumpkin steal and dunk cut the lead to 15 with 16:01 left, the Wildcats bumped chests and believed a comeback was possible.
Alas, Gonzaga sharpshooter Nigel Williams-Goss temporarily killed that idea, drilling a 3-pointer after Northwestern closed the gap to 44-32 and putting his finger to his lips to shush the crowd. But Northwestern wasn't done making noise.
"When we cut it to five, I thought we were going to win,'' Lumpkin said.
Suddenly, the impossible seemed within reach. Then the technical happened. Then the Zags remembered who they were. Gonzaga responded like a team that has trailed only three times in the second half all season, like a group potentially headed to the Final Four. Meanwhile, Northwestern resembled a team that belonged in the tournament and will benefit from the experience.
In the city DePaul made the Final Four in 1979 and Michael Jordan made his last shot as Bull in 1998, another Chicago-area basketball team simply fell just short. But a bitter ending changes nothing about Northwestern's season.
Consider that on a Saturday in mid-March, Northwestern woke up as the talk of college basketball. They made enough history for a documentary, and the future looks even better.
"This is just the beginning,'' promised Law, who saluted the crowd as the last Wildcat off the court.
As loud as ever, the Northwestern cheering section moved from behind its bench to across the court. Geography says Gonzaga is closer to Utah but, judging by the crowd noise, Northwestern enjoyed a better turnout.
All over downtown before the game, confidence wore the color purple as Northwestern fans flooded the Salt Lake area. Phillips revved up a pep rally audience of 1,000 at a nearby bar before the game by asking the crowd and Northwestern band if they knew the way to San Jose, the site of next weekend's regional final. Football coach Pat Fitzgerald, giving Willie the Wildcat a run for his money as team mascot, and ESPN personality Mike Greenberg led the crowd in the school fight song.
It has never been cooler to be a Northwestern basketball fan.
"It still was an amazing year for this program,'' Lindsey said in the losing locker room.