It took 19 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, including eight berths in the Sweet Sixteen, for the Gonzaga Bulldogs to reach the first Final Four in program history. They arrived Saturday in San Jose, rather easily, hammering No. 11 seed Xavier, also a Jesuit school, 83-59 (box) in the West Regional final.
The Zags (36-1) face the winner of East Regional final between South Carolina and Florida (they play Sunday) in the national semifinals April 1 in Glendale, AZ. Gonzaga is the first team from the state of Washington to advance to the Final Four since Elgin Baylor and the Seattle University Chieftains did it in 1958.
With former Gonzaga great John Stockton watching from the stands, the Zags rolled to a 49-39 halftime lead, largely by making eight of 13 3-point shots to only one for the Musketeers. Gonzaga, 1-2 all-time in regional finals, also held Xavier to a 43.8 percent shooting.
The first half ended with a bizarre sequence that started with Gonzaga accidentally knocking the ball into its own basket while fighting for a rebound. RaShid Gaston was credited with the hoop after the ball bounced off the floor and the backboard into the basket.
Gonzaga’s Nigel Williams-Goss then hit a floater in the lane and Xavier’s J.P. Macura followed with an 80-foot shot that banked in, but was ruled too late after an officials’ review.
Williams-Goss, a former University of Washington point guard, knocked down another 3-pointer early in the second half to boost Gonzaga’s lead to 54-41, and the Zags built on that steadily. A 12-4 run midway through the half staked Gonzaga to a 22-point lead at 75-53 and the Zags coasted.
“This means everything to me,” said Gonzaga head coach Mark Few. “It means everything that we could deliver for (our players). This is what we wanted to do. These guys this year have been unbelievable. I couldn’t be happier for these guys, for all of our former players and for the whole Zag nation.”
Jordan Mathews said that the program doesn’t necessarily need the Final Four to justify its consistent excellence.
“It’s not validation,” he said. “Look at all the past great teams with Matt Bouldin, Adam Morrison, Matt Santangelo and (Jeremy) Pargo – just great guys, great players on fantastic teams. The Final Four doesn’t validate or discredit a season. It’s not an end-all-be-all. Gonzaga has been a great program and we’re just happy to keep carrying the torch.”
“This has been such a crazy journey, transferring and all that, sitting out a year,” said Williams-Goss. “This whole experience is unreal. I’m very thankful.”
Williams-Goss, the West Coast Conference Player of the Year who transferred out of Washington two years ago, led Gonzaga with 23 points after a rough game against West Virginia. He knocked down four 3-pointers and added eight rebounds, four assists and two steals. Johnathan Williams added 19 points and eight rebounds while Mathews and Josh Perkins both had 11 points. Matthews drained a trio of threes.
The Bulldogs hit 47.5 percent of their shots, made 12 3-pointers and held Xavier to a 35.5 shooting percentage.The Musketeers went an abysmal 2-for-16 from beyond the arc.
Macura led Xavier, which took down No. 2 seed Arizona in the regional semifinals, with 18 points.
Gonzaga is 25-17 all-time in NCAA Tournament play under Few, who has been part of the program for 28 years.
“My first year on the staff, we won four Division I games,” he said. “I mean, this wasn’t even possible. And each year we got better and better, and then we got really, really good.
“Our culture is just so strong. And this was a culture win, and a culture statement.”