Men’s Basketball: Missed goaltending call stalls Northwestern’s comeback bid against Gonzaga
March 18, 2017
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SALT LAKE CITY — Basketball games have a funny tendency to hinge on a single moment.
Northwestern (24-12) found that out the hard way Saturday, when two decisions made just seconds apart late in its second-round matchup with Gonzaga (34-1) blunted a dramatic comeback effort by the Wildcats that fell just short.
After trailing by as many as 22 points, NU had found the spark it needed to compete with one of the country’s best teams after halftime. With a newfound energy and passion and their offense humming, the Cats had started to believe they could do the impossible. When sophomore forward Vic Law threw down a thunderous putback dunk with 5:37 to play to cut the Bulldogs’ lead to 5, NU’s sizable fan contingent roared in recognition of the potential miracle.
“We just were playing for our lives,” junior guard Bryant McIntosh said.
If momentum in sports is real, it had to be on the Cats’ side in that moment. And after forcing a stop on the next possession, sophomore center Dererk Pardon had a chance to bring NU — the team in its first NCAA Tournament appearance — within one possession of the West Region’s No. 1 seed with a finish at the rim.
Gonzaga big man Zach Collins met Pardon at the rim for a resounding block, but put his hand through the rim to do so.
“I don’t know if my hand was possibly in the rim. I don’t know what happened,” Collins said. “I think I blocked a shot … but I don’t know.”
It was a clear goaltending violation that should have resulted in two points for the Cats. A statement issued by the NCAA after the game said as much. But in the moment, the goaltending went uncalled, and an NU fan section poised to explode in joy erupted in anger instead.
In protest, coach Chris Collins strayed onto the court, loudly searching for an answer from the nearest referee. Instead, he was hit with a technical.
“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 to it if the play isn’t called,” the coach said. “I’m a human being, too. I think all of you would.”
Nigel Williams-Goss sunk both free throws on the other side to complete a 4-point swing for the Bulldogs. Suddenly, after rightfully working Gonzaga’s lead down to one score, NU faced a 7-point deficit that ballooned to 10 on a Zach Collins jumper with three minutes to play. The Cats got back to within 5 points twice more before the final buzzer, but never once had a shot to tie the game.
NU had almost five minutes to answer back after the no-call and technical foul. After a miserable first half left the Cats in an 18-point hole at the break, it’s impossible to say whether they deserved to come out on top. After compounding the refereeing error by losing his cool, Chris Collins stopped short of blaming the refs for his team’s failed comeback.
“It’s an honest mistake,” he said. “They’re here for a reason, because they’re outstanding officials. They made the calls. We have to live with them.”
But when Pardon went up to the basket, NU was just one stop and one made shot from being tied with a presumptive tournament favorite. Just a mistake and a momentary meltdown later, it wasn’t.
For Cats fans in attendance and watching elsewhere, the what-ifs may be impossible to avoid.
“Do (I), in my heart, think if Dererk gets that call and we cut it to three, we have a great chance to win?” Collins said. “Yes, I believe we had a great chance to win if the correct call was made.”