SALT LAKE CITY – For many years Gonzaga has been an enigma – a small-conference school with the NCAA tournament success of a major conference power and the fan base to match.
On Saturday, however, the Bulldogs will finally meet their match in the world of college basketball paradoxes – a Cinderella school from the Big Ten.
No. 9 seed Northwestern’s dream season continues thanks to a 68-66 win over No. 8 seed Vanderbilt on Thursday. A win that came courtesy of an ill-advised foul by Vanderbilt’s Mathew Fisher-Davis with the Commodores leading by a point with 15 seconds left in the game.
Saturday’s matchup presents an inversion of traditional roles for the small Jesuit school in Spokane that must now play Goliath against the Power Conference team from just outside Chicago.
To the credit of the Wildcats and their fans, they are playing the part perfectly. NU had by far the largest cheering section of any team in Vivant Smart Home Arena on Saturday, and easily the most engaged.
When the Wildcats got their first defensive stop in NCAA Tournament history the players on the bench and on the court celebrated like they had punched their ticket to the Final Four. When NU scored its first NCAA Tournament basket an older fan sitting in the front row began to cry.
The NU cheering section stood and applauded during the entirety of one timeout because a generic commercial for their school was playing on the overhead scoreboard.
“This was a special day for our team, for our program,” said coach Chris Collins after the win. “Coming out on the floor, when I saw all that purple in the arena it was … it was awesome. Just to see all the people that came from across the country, who came from all over the place that have never seen this before. They willed us through. I mean there were times when I thought we were really tired and the crowd kept us in it.”
It was clear from the early minutes of Thursday’s game that the Wildcats were not just happy to participate in March Madness, they were here to win games. NU employed a stifling defense that held the Commodores to just eight points in the game’s first 10 minutes, and held their opponent scoreless for a period that lasted 4:28 in the first half.
That crowd could serve as an extra opponent for the top-seeded Zags, whose fans may be waiting to show up in full force until the later rounds. The Wildcats were outscored in the second half and when Vanderbilt’s LaChance Riley hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:36 left in the game it seemed NU’s first NCAA Tournament run had run out of steam.
But the fans provided the energy and the Wildcats did enough to win, albeit with a little help from Vanderbilt’s inexplicable play.
“To see all that purple and the pride they had, the strength and courage they could give us as they went on a run late in the second half was a tremendous help,” said junior guard Bryant McIntosh. “Hopefully they can stick around for a little longer.”
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