Ernie Johnson may not have, but Gonzaga fans knew better.
An 18-point halftime lead was not the end of the story. Period.
However, Johnson, the longtime NCAA host for TBS and CBS, saw it differently.
“It’s been a wonderful story for Northwestern,” he said at halftime, with Gonzaga leading 38-20, “and I’m not saying it’s over now – but it’s over now.”
His three partners, Clark Kellogg, Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley, all laughed.
It was funny, sure, but it almost didn’t turn out to be true.
Mainly because of something Smith pointed out right after the laughter died.
“I’ve watched this team a lot,” Smith said of the 34-1 Zags, “and Gonzaga can go through scoring lulls.”
You could almost hear the heads bobbing in agreement around Zag Nation.
If eighth-seeded Northwestern solved the Gonzaga defensive puzzle – the Wildcats had just nine baskets in the first half and committed eight turnovers – in the second half, watch out.
The Wildcats did. And we did. Watch, I mean. As Northwestern almost knocked the top-seeded Zags out in front of a Vivint Arena crowd that was definitely all in with the underdogs.
Though GU held on to win 79-73, there were moments. And plays that will be remembered.
The biggest one? Zach Collins’ block of Dererk Pardon’s dunk attempt with just less than 5 minutes remaining and Gonzaga leading 63-58.
CBS’ multiple replays showed the same thing every time: Collins’ hand was inside the rim, making contact with the net and rim as he blocked Pardon’s shot.
But none of the three officials – Chris Rastatter, who works Pac-12 and WCC games, Jeff Clark nor Brent Hampton – saw it that way. And, as Silas Melson dribbled the ball up the court, Northwestern coach Chris Collins was well out on the court, slapping his arm in frustration.
So Hampton did what was required. He gave Collins a technical. Nigel Williams-Goss hit both free throws, the Zags led by seven and Northwestern didn’t get within five again until the final 21 seconds.
And everyone had something to talk about.
Steve Lappas, the former Villanova coach doing the analysis in Salt Lake City, thought the goaltend should have been called – and that it was a turning point. So did his play-by-play partner Andrew Catalon.
And the guys in the studio agreed with Johnson when he expressed the opinion on the postgame show goaltending should be reviewable.
But review doesn’t always work. On a key play in front of the GU bench, with less than a minute left, Killian Tillie and Sanjay Lumpkin battled for a ball out of bounds. It took almost 2 minutes for the officials to decide the call of Northwestern ball stood. Yet, a frame-by-frame replay seemed to show Lumpkin got a finger on the ball last.
If they had changed their call, there would have been incessant replays – of a young Northwestern fan.
As it is, the emotional young man with braces, a buzz cut and a No. 4 Wildcats jersey was a focal point down the stretch. So much so, Catalon mentioned he thought the meme of the crying Villanova piccolo player from a couple years ago was about to be replaced.
But the Northwestern fan wasn’t the only youngster in the spotlight.
Two Gonzaga players were subject of much speculation as well. Lappas and Catalon wondered why Collins and Tillie, both freshmen, were on the court for the final stretch.
It’s simple. The two players they replaced, Przemek Karnowski and Johnathon Williams III, are not good free throw shooters, though Karnowski made all three of his attempts Saturday.
Collins, who had 12 points after halftime, and Tillie, with eight points after intermission, combined to sink 10 of 14 free throws. It’s a strategy Mark Few used in Florida in two close tournament games early in the season.
It worked then. It worked here. And the Zags will move on to the Sweet Sixteen again.
Even if it wasn’t a foregone conclusion at halftime. As some folks thought.
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