Northwestern was beaten by No. 1-seeded Gonzaga, 79-73, in the second round, and nobody was surprised that its run ended. It wasn't so much a run as it was a step forward. And coach Chris Collins would take it.
"These guys took me on an amazing ride this year," he said.
The Wildcats fans would take it, too — reluctantly.
At the end of Saturday's game, fans around the building from both teams applauded, Northwestern's for the strong effort the Wildcats put up in the second half, coming back from a large deficit, Gonzaga's for the Bulldogs scrapping just to hang on.
The final scene was telling: With 2 seconds left, Collins subbed out his starters, hugging them one by one as they came to the bench, even in defeat. And with that, Cinderella was sad, its season done, but also fulfilled in a half-empty sort of way. Those players on the court applauded their fans as the fans applauded back.
But … well, you know. Their season was done, their dream dead.
"The finality of the NCAA Tournament is really tough," Collins said.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few has been there and felt the pain: "There's a lot of emotion that goes into these things," he said. "If you lose …"
Yeah, if you lose.
"The way we fought, it was great," Collins said. "We fought to the very end."
Collins had said earlier that he never wanted the Cinderella designation for his team. He preferred to think of what the Wildcats accomplished this season as a baseline for the future: "We don't really view ourselves as a Cinderella story. … I said from the moment I was hired that my dream for Northwestern is to be a championship-level program. And I don't think there's any reason why we can't eventually get there. … This is just a step along the way."
One giant leap for Wildcat-kind.
The key word spoken by Collins: eventually.
Their game against Gonzaga started sloppy at the offensive end and intense on the defensive, although credit for the latter easily was blurred with blame for the former. Either way, the Zags used a 14-2 run to build an early lead it never would relinquish.