SALT LAKE CITY — Having found their way this month to a fresh perch of giddiness, Northwestern fans on Saturday found their way to a further pleasure of fandom: aggrievedness. Lucky them.
Like so many of their American brethren of basketball and football, they’ll get to spend the rest of their days with the chance to practice one of the treasured human pastimes: reliving an officiating error, then envisioning how the whole wretched ending would have altered without said officiating error.
On occasion, during this process, they might even drink.
For a fan group with a green all-time NCAA men’s basketball tournament record of 1-1, they’ll review how, in No. 8 Northwestern’s 79-73 loss to top-seeded Gonzaga in a second-round game in a Vivint Arena transformed into a hot gym, the referees blew a call, and then their coach helped blow the game.
The referees actually missed Gonzaga’s Zach Collins sticking his hand upward through the rim to block a shot, a sin disallowed sometime soon after the game’s founders forwent the peach baskets. Then the coach actually missed an elemental tenet of coaching the sport, which is that coaches do not run out on the floor and attempt to be the sixth man in transition, especially given their poor attire for the task.
The keepers of the game that has filled Chris Collins’s whole life long have figured there’s plenty of room along the sideline, or at one’s unused chair, for justified anger. With Collins’s ensuing technical foul, what might have been a 63-60 Northwestern deficit swept its way to 65-58.
What a morsel on which to chew indefinitely.
After Gonzaga tightened utterly and then prevailed fortunately, there came a moment you don’t often see even in the vivid halls of the NCAA tournament. It concerned the glowing sequence just after the five-minute mark, a point when a once-dazzling Gonzaga had seen its onetime 34-12 lead shrink to a two-possession 63-58. The ’Cats were charging, and the ’Dogs were fumbling, before the missed call and the blown coaching.
So at the postgame news conference, the interview conductor read a statement on the matter from the NCAA from the dais, seated alongside Collins and two of his admirable players, Bryant McIntosh and Vic Law.
As reporters, stenographers and other listeners heard this reading, Collins, the 42-year-old, fourth-season head coach who will always be the man who first led the program to the big frontier, made various facial expressions, as if at the Northwestern Department of Theatre. He smirked, nodded and even seemed to smile, and while he was not exactly Meryl Streep, he wasn’t bad.
“I appreciate the apology; it makes me feel great,” he said sarcastically moments later.
The statement: “With 4:57 remaining . . . the officials missed a rules violation when a Gonzaga defender put his arm through the rim to block a shot. Rule 9, Section 15 of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Rules Book” — which sounds like riveting reading — “covers Basket Interference and Goaltending. Article 2.a.3 states that basket interference occurs when a player reaches through the basket from below and touches the ball before it enters the cylinder. Replays showed the Gonzaga defender violated this rule, which should have resulted in a scored basket by Northwestern.”
The statement, Part 2: “Subsequently, with 4:54 remaining in the game and based on bench decorum rules outlined in the rules book, a technical foul was assessed to Northwestern Coach Chris Collins for coming onto the floor to argue the non-call while the ball was in play.”
The statement did not go on to say, “At least he did not attempt to steal the ball and convert an ensuing layup.” It also did not say, “This rule goes also for people who have played and coached at Duke,” because that would have been gratuitously out of line and a cheap attempt at national popularity.
“It’s a very easy call, in my opinion,” Collins said of the goaltending. “But it’s an honest mistake. Referees are human beings, they’re here for a reason, because they’re outstanding officials.”
He said this about an hour after, early in the second half, the former NBA player and coach and U.S. Olympian Doug Collins, from the first row, kindly had advised one of the officials that this would be that official’s last NCAA game.
Later, asked whether the technical might “sit with” him, Chris Collins said, “Yeah, I guess.” He added, “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.”
“I’m a human being, too.”
“I think all of you would.”
(And all would receive technicals.)
Northwestern’s first turn at the second round did contain more things about which to spend the coming years yammering. It had the first-half prowess of Gonzaga guard Nigel Williams-Goss, who reached halftime with 14 points, six rebounds and four assists. It also had a second half where Williams-Goss, that rare player who can control games, lost that control, with one field goal and zero assists thereafter. Gonzaga has a fine 7-foot freshman lurking around on the bench when the games start, so the game had Zach Collins with a pivotal 14 points, five rebounds and four blocks (including the overlooked goaltend), 12 of the points after halftime, in a saving role.
As the curtain dropped on Northwestern’s greatest season, this game also had a riveting, unforeseen near-comeback. McIntosh, the Wildcats’ pilot who went bamboozled early with Gonzaga’s defense, unlocked the thing and drove all over town to score and set up scores. Said senior Sanjay Lumpkin, “The way we played [in the second half] is who we are.” Said McIntosh, “It’s nice to be put on the map,” and, “This group, it was the end of a lifetime, with this group.”
Together, they had given their fans that gift that so many other fans have known for so long: the chance to spend good chunks of life in lament.