With 4:58 left in the second half, Zach Collins stuck his hand through the net.
The date was March 18, 2017. The ‘Cats, playing in their second March Madness game ever after squeaking by Vanderbilt in the first round, trailed Gonzaga by 18 at the end of the first half but were on their way to a remarkable comeback. A Scottie Lindsay block on Nigel Williams-Goss gave Northwestern the ball, down by five. On the other end, it seemed a missed Bryant McIntosh layup would be followed up by a Dererk Pardon dunk.
But Collins stuck his hand through the net.
It’s been over three years, and Northwestern fans are still unable to fathom how the refs missed that call. Meanwhile, Chris Collins didn’t. He stormed onto the court in a fit of rage, earning a technical foul that sent all momentum right back to the Zags.
Poof. Comeback hopes gone. Instead of being down by three with five minutes to go, the ‘Cats suddenly found themselves down by seven.
Northwestern ended up losing the game by six after posting 53 second half points, the most points scored in the second half on Gonzaga that season. The Zags, of course, went on to make a run to the National Championship game, only to fall short against North Carolina. But what if that goaltend on Collins was called? How would it have changed history? Let’s revisit.
Rewriting the Last Five
A goaltend called would have put the ‘Cats down three with just under five minutes remaining. That’s a one possession game.
There is, of course, the possibility that inexperience could’ve killed the ‘Cats later on, but we’ll ignore that.
NU wouldn’t have needed a three, but Nate Taphorn was always available. The senior shot 47 percent from behind the arc in the 2016-17 season. If Taphorn wasn’t open, Vic Law could’ve been the second option, as he shot just under 40 percent from three on the year. Regardless, it’s clear Northwestern had options.
Prior to the technical, the ‘Cats had outscored Gonzaga 38-25 in the second half. On top of that, Gonzaga hadn’t scored a basket in just over three minutes. In that same span, Northwestern was on a 6-0 run.
This second half was a marathon for the Wildcats, not a sprint. The Zags lacked momentum throughout the entire stretch. It’s not like Northwestern went on one huge run to close the gap. It was a slow, methodical push. A called goaltend meant NU would’ve kept pushing, possibly to the finish line. A missed goaltend erased said push entirely.
Now, let’s say that Northwestern ends up winning that game. They would’ve gone on to face four-seeded West Virginia, a team who, according to KenPom, had the sixth best defense in the country based on adjusted defensive efficiency.
Diving deeper into the defensive metrics, the Mountaineers ranked second in the country in forcing turnovers and first in steal percentage at 13.8 percent. On top of that, they loved the press, earning the nickname “Press Virginia” by college basketball fans across the country.
On the offensive end, West Virginia ranked 27th in adjusted offensive efficiency. Much like Northwestern, they loved to slow tempo, finishing the season ranked 104th in adjusted tempo (the ‘Cats finished ranked 259th).
Had Northwestern gone on to face this Mountaineer team, it would’ve been a slugfest. I doubt either team would have broken 60 points. In all honesty, a loss for the ‘Cats would have been likely. Northwestern struggled mightily against the press all season and that was WVU’s specialty.
But in the end, it’s just a shame we never got to see it play out.