SALT LAKE CITY — Now the real work begins for No. 1 seed Gonzaga.
Aiming for the program’s first-ever Final Four, the Bulldogs were pushed surprisingly hard in the Round of 32 by No. 8 seed Northwestern but held on, 79-73, and will head to the West Regional in as good a position as they’ve ever been in to win a championship.
Still, Saturday at Vivint SmartHome Arena wasn’t as much of a coronation for the Zags as a performance that leaves plenty of questions heading into next week’s regional semifinal against No. 4 seed West Virginia.
Though Gonzaga out-scored Northwestern 28-6 over a stretch of nearly 14 minutes in the first half to seemingly pull away, it almost fell apart in a second half mess of turnovers, missed free throws and surprisingly few answers under pressure on offense.
Still, it’s the third consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament’s second weekend for Gonzaga and seventh Sweet 16 appearance for Mark Few, who won his 500th career game on Saturday.
Gonzaga’s 18-point lead nearly disappeared thanks to 11 second-half turnovers and a string of three-pointers from Northwestern, which drew within 63-58 with 5:29 left and suddenly had an arena full of Arizona and St. Mary’s fans in their corner.
But Northwestern coach Chris Collins lost his cool with 4:54 remaining, arguing for a goaltending call and instead earning a technical foul at the worst possible time. Though replay showed Collins was correct, he went running onto the court after the official, who wasted no time calling the technical. Point guard Nigel Williams-Goss buried the two subsequent free throws, helping Gonzaga build the lead back to 10 with 3 minutes remaining on a strong layup in traffic by freshman Zach Collins, who finished with 14 points.
Northwestern's coach got a tech for this, but he has a point 🤔 pic.twitter.com/9xFS9n5ves— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 18, 2017
For the Zags, it was a markedly different vibe from the first half when they looked every bit like the No. 1 seed and the top-rated defensive efficiency team in the nation.
There were almost no easy shots the first half for Northwestern, trying to navigate around the length of 6-foot-9 Johnathan Williams, the sheer size of 7-foot-1 center Przemek Karnowski and the pesky hands of point guard Goss. The Wildcats were forced to play far faster than they were comfortable with, making just 9-of-30 field goals and 1-of-11 from the 3-point line.
Williams-Goss, who struggled with his shot in the first-round victory over South Dakota State, came back to form with 14 first-half points and four assists. He finished with 20 points.
Northwestern, which appeared on the verge of getting blown out in the first half, did nothing to embarrass itself in the program’s first-ever NCAA tournament appearance. Senior point guard Bryant McIntosh had 20 points in his final college game, and the Wildcats made seven 3-pointers in the second half to give themselves a chance.