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The NCAA Tournament can be one mean, fickle sucker. It creates and celebrates Cinderellas and sweethearts, and then, in the space of a couple of hours, ends their dreams, sweeps them aside, breaks their hearts and rewards victory to the teams that were favored to win all along.

And yet, somehow there's satisfaction in all that.

It's what happened to one of those sweethearts Saturday at Vivint Smart Home Arena, a team that had spit in the face of history, dismissing all that had happened in its school's sorry past, becoming that school's first basketball iteration to make the tournament — and win a game in it. And now, lose in it.

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.

Not today.

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.

The Bulldogs did exactly what Collins had feared they would — take advantage of the Wildcats' nervous/missed shots to get into transition. With the minutes clicking off the clock toward halftime, the Bulldogs hit the boards harder and ran the floor faster, going up by 20. At that point, the Zags reminded everybody why they are the West's No. 1 seed.

Next thing, Northwestern came on strong to bring back doubts about Gonzaga.

The Wildcats cut the lead to single digits down the stretch. And they got help from Gonzaga's bad passes, missed field goals and free throws, and careless play, play that Few called "boneheaded."

But they earned that comeback with improved defense, better shot-making — they hit 9 of 30 shots in the first half, 18 of 36 in the second — and a more determined effort. The Bulldogs' lead crumbled to five with minutes remaining and suddenly the Zags were hurting — and the crowd got firmly behind the Wildcats. A technical foul on an animated Collins after a blown basket-interference/goaltending call by the refs and the attendant free throws put the lead back to seven. Northwestern scrambled from there but could not close the margin.

The whole thing was rough and tumble, and a gas to watch. It looked like an old-time, old-West cartoon where a bunch of caricature cowboys start fighting in a saloon, a cloud of dust is kicked up, along with tables and chairs and stars and … ultimately, the winners — in this case, Gonzaga — emerged from the cloud.

That was this game.

Cinderella got in a bar fight with the No. 1 and lost.

GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.

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