Gonzaga basketball critics forever bemoan the lack of deep runs made by the Bulldogs in the NCAA tournament. Now that Gonzaga has reached the Elite Eight for the second time in school history, some naysayers no doubt will dock the Zags style points for the oft-ugly manner in which they wrestled their way past UCLA Friday night.
The Bulldogs can only hope their critics are still complaining when they reach the Final Four.
Gonzaga overcame one of the ugliest first halves imaginable – for both teams – to claim a 74-62 victory over UCLA in Sweet 16 action in Houston. The Bulldogs are one win away from playing in the Final Four for the first time. Gonzaga will play No. 1-seeded Duke Sunday at 2:05 p.m., PT (KIRO 7). The Blue Devils advanced to the Elite Eight by ousting No. 5 seed Utah 63-57.
Many Gonzaga teams have been criticized in the past for a lack of grit, but this year’s team has often relied on the inside play of rugged post players Przemek Karnowski and Damontas Sabonis. On a night when shots just would not fall for most players on both teams, Karnowski went 8-for-11 from the field and scored a game-high 18 points, and Sabonis went 6-for-9 and scored 12 points off the bench.
“Our ‘bigs’ have been delivering all year . . . they have really been the key to this season,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said in a post-game television interview.
The Bulldogs (35-2), seeded second in the South Region, led 35-28 after both teams battered the rims in the first half with their shots. The 11th-seeded Bruins (22-14) scored all three baskets in the first two minutes of the second half to pull within one, but Few called a timeout, and his team responded with a 12-0 run. UCLA never threatened again.
“We went on our 6-0 run,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said, “they really attacked us in transition and were able to swing the ball around and make open shots, and they fed the ball into the post.”
Both teams had to warm up in the second half to shoot around 40 percent from the field for the game. At one point in the first half, three Gonzaga free throws accounted for the only scoring for 6½ minutes.
Each team sank just three shots from 3-point range all night – Gonzaga in 19 tries, UCLA in 13 attempts, but there were just 12 turnovers in the game (five by Gonzaga). The Bulldogs blasted the smaller, younger Bruins 50-39 on the glass, including 18-12 at the offensive end.
“We just got beat up on the glass, and that doesn’t happen to us very often,” Alford said. “But I thought the difference was, we gave up 18 offensive rebounds, and that enabled them to get to the free-throw line, where we didn’t. So the board play and free-throw line ended up being pretty much the difference in the game.”
The game was played in NRG Stadium, home of the NFL’s Houston Texans. Basketball players often struggle to shoot with the different sight lines in football stadiums or domed arenas of any kind, but Gonzaga and UCLA players said the building was not to blame for the dismal shooting. After all, both teams missed plenty of layups.
“The ball didn’t bounce our way tonight,” UCLA post Tony Parker said. “They beat us up on the glass and at the free-throw line, and that decided the game.”
The Bulldogs, who came into the game leading the nation with 52.6 percent shooting from the field, sank just 40.3 percent of their shots. Only in their loss to Arizona have the Zags shot worse this season (39.7). The three 3-pointers tied Gonzaga’s season low, and the 15.8 percent effort from beyond the arc was the worst all year for the Bulldogs.
“We know we’re a talented offensive team,” said Gonzaga guard Byron Wesley, who scored 14 points. “On nights like tonight when we’re able to win by double digits and even not having our best shooting night, I think it says a lot.”
Parker and guard Norman Powell led the Bruins with 16 points. Parker grabbed 11 rebounds, Karnowski nine and Sabonis eight.
Gonzaga season scoring leader Kyle Wiltjer, who scored 47 points in the first two tournament games, had 10 rebounds but just eight points on 4-for-12 shooting. GU senior guards Kevin Pangos (10 points, 1-for-7 on 3’s) and Gary Bell Jr. (six points, 0-for-5 on 3’s) struggled to hit shots.
“We didn’t play perfect tonight,” Few said, “and probably didn’t even play what we would consider, like, really good, and that has a lot to do with UCLA. But we were tough and gritty and physical, and I think that’s kind of how we’ve been all year. I was proud of that.”
Karnowski had plenty of reason to be proud of his effort. Of course, Karnowski was working hard to be involved in NCAA tournaments even before he arrived at Gonzaga, because he recalled getting up in the middle of the night to watch tournament games as a youth back home in Poland.
“For me, it was always a dream to be here and to play deep in the NCAA tournament,” Karnowski said. “Right now, I’m here, and I’m trying to enjoy every second of it.”