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2017 NCAA Tournament: Gonzaga holds off Northwestern rally to punch ticket to Sweet 16

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The Zags almost (just barely) shed the horrors of Thursday and ended Northwestern’s dream run.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Gonzaga vs Northwestern Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Gonzaga Bulldogs held off a furious rally from Northwestern on Saturday as they ended the WIldcats first NCAA Tournament experience in the second round, 79-73. The Zags are now heading to their third-straight Sweet 16.

After starting off with a horrendous first half in the first round on Thursday, the Zags came out with the same game plan that has won them every game but one this season. The defense was absolutely smothering, holding Northwestern to just 30 percent shooting from the floor and 1-of-11 from long range.

Nigel Williams-Goss looked like he recovered from his rough Thursday in the first half, scoring 14 first half points and looking every bit the point guard that Gonzaga needs to make a deep run in this tournament.

The first half was all Gonzaga, and the Zags took a 38-20 lead into halftime. The entire first half for Northwestern could be summed up by this face:

The Zags opened the second half rather listless. They picked up five early fouls and committed some rather careless turnovers, forcing Few to call a timeout. In a game that ended up having a some negative marks for the Zags, this might be one of the few moments were the team looked truly mortal. Then of course, with Northwestern making a push, Williams-Goss hit a cold-blooded three to silence the crowd.

But then, the referees reared their ugly heads (for both teams really). The real issue was the officiating turnaround in the second half. After letting both teams play for the first 20 minutes, the refs became rather trigger happy in the second half. Both teams were in the bonus with nearly 12 minutes left in the game. It was a rather frustrating second half. The Zags had a lot of dumb turnovers, but these were amplified by a lot of frustrating fouls (many of which weren’t fouls 20 minutes before).

For the second straight game, Zach Collins was the x-factor for the Zags. He was sensational on both sides of the ball, and Mark Few went with Collins over Przemek Karnowski for much of the second half. Collins had 12 points and four blocks, with the fourth being one of the most important moments in the game.

Northwestern’s Coach Collins picked up a much deserved technical foul, but he was right on his point. Zach Collins blocked a big shot (through the hoop). It furthered the story for the refs, who became as irrelevant as possible, missing calls for both teams and shoving themselves into the narrative for no reason at all.

Again, the free throw conundrum didn’t help. Gonzaga missed too many free points at the charity stripe and allowed Northwestern to climb back into it. The Zags finished the game just 23-of-36 from the line, and in a game where the referees forced both teams to the line super early, this became a huge issue. The game didn’t need to be this close, and Gonzaga made it this close.

Credit to Northwestern where it is due. They played out of their minds in the second half to make this a game. Vic Law hit some huge shots, and Bryant McIntosh was sensational until a knee injury took him out of the game for a bit.

These past two games were very reminiscent of Gonzaga’s tournament in Florida over Thanksgiving. A wretched first half and the best second half followed by the best first half and a horrid second half (hello Florida and Iowa State). At the end of the day, the Zags did the bare minimum to hold on, and for that, they are going to the Sweet 16.