Resilient Zags head to title game in first Final Four
GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Gonzaga watched big man Przemek Karnowski fall to the floor in a heap and holding his eye as he headed to the locker room. The Zags saw a 14-point lead evaporate in a South Carolina flurry and traded punches with the Gamecocks over the tense closing minutes.
Gonzaga absorbed the blows, counterpunched and now has another game to play, this one for the national championship. The Zags face North Carolina on Monday night.
Led by the poise of point guard Nigel Williams-Goss and freshman center Zach Collins, Gonzaga turned its first trip to the Final Four into one big Zag party after beating South Carolina 77-73 on Saturday.
“We said all year that we’re a tight group,” Williams-Goss said. “We said we’re brothers and we stick together and it shows. Coach always says we can’t just talk the talk, we had to walk the walk. And when things got tough we banded together and pulled through.”
The big knock on Gonzaga in the past was its inability to handle adversity. The Zags were remarkably consistent, making 19 straight trips to the NCAA Tournament, yet could never get past that Final Four roadblock.
Gonzaga broke through that with a hard-fought win over West Virginia in the Sweet 16 and a blowout over Xavier in the Elite Eight.
Their Final Four jinx over, the Zags headed back to Arizona, where they burst onto the national consciousness with an Elite Eight run in 1999.
Waiting for them were fiery Frank Martin and the big-game Gamecocks — and they took them head on for a tense 40 minutes.
“I was just really, really proud of our guys, our late-game execution,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “I think that’s been a topic of speculation, because we haven’t really had many close games. But we practiced it a lot. And I mean, the guys executed it perfectly, especially down the last four minutes.”
Gonzaga looked as if it was going to run away from South Carolina, as it had in the previous round against Xavier.
Instead, the Zags (37-1) had another “rock fight,” as Few called the West Virginia game, against the just-as-physical South Carolina.
Williams-Goss was the catalyst early, pulling up for jumpers, hitting 3s, setting up teammates for easy baskets. He kept it going as Gonzaga pushed a nine-point halftime lead to 14 midway through the second half.
The West Coast Conference player of the year, Williams-Goss finished with 23 points on 9-of-16 shooting, with six assists and five rebounds.
“I think the respect thing has to go out the window,” he said. “You have 37 wins in a college season, I mean that’s just unbelievable.”
Karnowski went down late in the first half after being swiped across the right eye by South Carolina’s Chris Silva. He told trainers he couldn’t clear his vision in his right eye and headed to the locker room, his status unknown to the Zags.
Collins picked up the slack while Karnowski was out and again down the stretch after South Carolina keyed on Williams-Goss, scoring inside, swatting away shots on defense. The athletic 7-footer hit a 3-pointer to stop South Carolina’s big run and finished with 14 points, 13 rebounds and six blocked shots.
“I just had to use my length, my hands and stuff to get blocks and help our team to win,” Collins said.
Another criticism of Gonzaga in the past was its defense. The Zags could always score, but stopping teams on the big stage of the NCAA Tournament had always been a sore spot, ending their season before they could get to the final weekend.
Gonzaga was not very good defensively in the first half in the eyes of their coach, despite holding South Carolina to 13-of-35 shooting. The Zags were sharp early in the second half, only to watch the Gamecocks rev up their comeback machine. South Carolina made 9 of 13 shots during a four-minute stretch, reeling off 16 straight points to take a 67-65 lead.
The Zags tightened back up when they needed to, closing out South Carolina behind a defense that was No. 1 in adjusted efficiency during the regular season..
Gonzaga also closed in around South Carolina star Sindarius Thornwell, frustrating the NCAA Tournament’s leading scorer all game.
The Zags started with Jordan Mathews on Thornwell and switched to Johnathan Williams, who used his four-inch height advantage to deny Thornwell the ball and contest his shots.
Thornwell, who was averaging 26 points per game, missed practice Thursday due to an illness and missed eight of his 12 shots on Saturday, finishing with 15 points — 11 under his scoring average in the tournament.
“Sometimes our defense, it has kind of a cumulative effect on you,” Few said.
So did all those years of trying to get here.