Gonzaga reached the NCAA Tournament championship game for the first time in program history Saturday — only barely. After squandering a 14-point second-half lead by allowing South Carolina a 16-0 run, the Zags recovered to defeat the Gamecocks 77-73 in Glendale, AZ (box). Gonzaga is the first team from the state of Washington to reach the title game since the Elgin Baylor-led Seattle U. Chieftains in 1958.
Gonzaga (37-1) will face North Carolina, a 77-76 winner over Oregon in the second national semifinal Saturday for the national championship Monday night. Head coach Mark Few’s Zags will try to become the first team from the Pacific time zone to win a title since the 1995 UCLA Bruins — at the Kingdome, the last time the title was contested in the West — and the first western conference member since Arizona in 1997.
“I thought our guys did a great job hanging in there,” said Few, who has taken the Zags to 18 consecutive NCAA tournaments without a championship appearance until now. “My hat’s off to South Carolina. They had the heart of a lion and we are happy and thankful to be moving on.
“I don’t know that I could make a statement that would sum up: A, how I feel and, B, to describe that game. Man, just an awesome, awesome basketball game. I mean, that run South Carolina made on us . . . it took everything we had to hold them off and come back.
“I was just really, really proud of our guys, our late-game execution. I think that’s been a topic of speculation, because we haven’t really had many close games. But we practiced it a lot. The guys executed it perfectly, especially down the last four minutes. To be playing the last game of the year is just crazy cool.”
Nigel Williams Goss, the transfer from Washington who led the Zags with 23 points, said it was time to be done with the denigration of the Zags’ schedule.
“I think the (dis)srespect thing has to go out the window,” he said. You have 37 wins in a college season, I mean, that’s just unbelievable. And to be playing the last game of the season, we have a chance to play for it all. And we’re here to win it.
“The journey we’ve been on has just been unreal. We just never stopped believing. We’ve had the utmost confidence in ourselves the entire season long. And like I said before the game, I guess they were making comments that we were the most nervous team in the tournament. We just heard everything this year — we’ve heard the (weak) conference, we’ve heard we haven’t played tight games, that we’re not tough. We’ve heard everything.”
With Williams-Goss scoring 12 points in the first half and Gonzaga making 58 percent of its shots, the Zags constructed a 45-36 halftime lead, that despite the fact that center Przemek Karnowski sustained a severe poke to the right eye that forced him to miss the final five minutes.
He started the second half and helped the Zags go up by 14 points midway through the second half. Gonzaga appeared in total control. But, with light-switch rapidity, the Gamecocks reeled off 16 in a row to take a 67-65 lead with 7:06 remaining.
The Bulldogs, having gone without a field goal for more than four minutes, recovered with a 7-0 run to re-take the lead. The lead was down to 75-73 with 2.2 seconds left when Gonzaga freshman Killian Tillie hit a pair of free throws.
“I can’t say enough about how well our kids fought,” said South Carolina coach Frank Martin. “I’m so proud of them. Sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t. Eventually, the pain of losing will go away.”
Besides the points, Williams-Goss, named second-team All-America by the Associated Press earlier this week, hadfive rebounds and six assists, despite tweaking an already-injured ankle in the second half. Karnowski added 13 points, five rebounds and three assists, while Zach Collins came off the bench to contribute 14 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks.
Gonzaga shot 48.3 percent while holding South Carolina to 37.9. The Bulldogs also out-rebounded the Gamecocks 40-36 as Karnowski and Collins combined for 18.
A big key to the win came from defense, which held Sindarius Thornwell, the Southeastern Conference player of the year who was hindered by the flu, to 15 points on 4-for-12 shooting. Thornwell entered as the leading scorer in the NCAA Tournament at 25.6 points per game.