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Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Zach Collins (32) sticks his hand through the net while trying to block a shot from Northwestern Wildcats center Dererk Pardon (5) during the game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 18, 2017.
I thought our guys did a good job of absorbing their runs and then making runs of our own. And we basically just survived and hung in at the end. That's what this tournament is all about — you just need to advance. —Gonzaga coach Mark Few

SALT LAKE CITY β€” You certainly couldn't blame Northwestern's basketball team and fans for playing the frustrating "What if?" game Saturday.

And for the coming weeks, months and years, for that matter.

What if the Wildcats hadn't played the first half like a deer-in-the-headlights program that was making its first-ever NCAA appearance?

What if they hadn't gone through a horrific shooting stretch when the ’Cats clanked 17 of 20 shots, including nine 3-point attempts, over nearly a 14-minute span, allowing top-seeded Gonzaga to stage a 28-6 scoring spree and open up a 22-point spread (34-12) that still stood at 18 points, 38-20, at halftime?

What if officials hadn't missed a critical basket-interference call against the Zags, a mistake they readily admitted after the game, on a play that rightfully incensed Northwestern coach Chris Collins, who was subsequently assessed a technical foul?

That crucial sequence denied the ’Cats a chance to cut the Bulldogs' lead to three, instead giving Gonzaga two technical free throws at the other end to extend its margin to seven points, 65-58, plus possession, with just under five minutes remaining.

Those questions will no doubt haunt the Northwestern program from now on and, if none of those maddening things had happened in Saturday's second-round matchup, who knows? The Wildcats just might still be dancing.

Instead, a tournament-toughened Gonzaga team (34-1), making its 19th consecutive trip to the Big Dance, turned back Northwestern's valiant second-half comeback bid and came away with a gritty 79-73 victory at Vivint Arena.

"We knew coming in that Northwestern had a lot of fight in them," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said after his team reached the Sweet 16 for the third straight year. "And they just had kind of a spirit of a winner, and we talked about that at halftime.

"I thought our guys did a good job of absorbing their runs and then making runs of our own. And we basically just survived and hung in at the end. That's what this tournament is all about β€” you just need to advance."

Junior guard Nigel Williams-Goss scored 14 of his team-leading 20 points in the first half for the Bulldogs, who advance to face West Virginia next Thursday at San Jose, and also had a team-high eight rebounds. Senior guard Jordan Mathews and 7-foot freshman Zach Collins contributed 14 points apiece for Gonzaga. Mathews also had seven boards, and Collins blocked four shots for the Bulldogs.

"I thought our coaches had us dialed into a great game plan," Williams-Goss said. "… And at the end of the day, we just competed. That's what it boils down to. You can have whatever game plan you want but, at the end of the day, you have to compete.

"We'll take the win whether it's pretty, ugly. … It doesn't matter how you win, as long as you do it."

For Northwestern (24-12), junior guard Bryant McIntosh led the way with 20 points and seven assists, while sophomore forward Vic Law added 18 points with eight rebounds. McIntosh (13) and Law (15) combined for 28 second-half points to ignite the Wildcats' comeback.

Junior guard Scottie Lindsey was also in double digits with 12 points, 10 of those coming after halftime.

"The cornerstone of our program is never quitting," said Law. "I don't care how much we're down or what the situation is, we never quit. And I think the guys rallied around each other.

"... I mean, we made history in a way that's never been done at this university."

McIntosh talked about what a special group of teammates he has.

"This is a group that will be connected for the rest of our lives because of all the things we accomplished," he said.

And Northwestern coach Chris Collins handled a difficult situation with a ton of class.

"I thought we were a little shell-shocked early in the first half, for whatever reason," he said. "That led to the big deficit and we regrouped at half, we rallied together, and the performance that our guys put in the second half was some of the best basketball I've seen us play all season long.

"… The way we fought was great, and we fought to the very end. We just came up a little bit too short. … To me, the second half tonight is who that group was all year long."

He also calmly addressed the gigantic no-call on the basket-interference play.

"It would have been a three-point game. We had all the momentum," Collins said. "… But it's an honest mistake. Referees are human beings. … Yes, I believe we had a great chance to win if the correct call was made.

"… They issued a statement. I appreciate the apology. It makes me feel great."