The college basketball world was supposed to be in Atlanta this weekend for the Final Four.
By now, every fan knows the NCAA Tournament routine: Two weeks of charmed underdogs, buzzer beaters and massive upsets leading up to the Final Four, the sport’s showcase event.
Gonzaga was one of 15, maybe 20 teams with legitimate Final Four aspirations. Only a handful of teams separated from the pack during the season, but the list of true contenders capable of winning four straight games remained relatively small.
Two days after winning the WCC Tournament, Gonzaga learned it wouldn’t get a chance to dance. The NCAA Tournament was called off due to the coronavirus pandemic.
So the timing seems appropriate to revisit Gonzaga’s Final Four breakthrough in 2017. First up, the Zags’ roller-coaster 77-73 semifinal win over South Carolina at University of Phoenix Stadium. On Monday, we will look back at the breathtaking highs and agonizing lows in the Zags’ title-game loss to North Carolina.
Here are four seminal keys/moments that shaped Gonzaga’s gritty victory over the Gamecocks.
Collins comes up big
Forward Zach Collins had no fear of big moments during his freshman year, and that was the case on the Final Four stage.
The Zags’ first one-and-done freshman posted his lone double-double of the season with 14 points and 13 rebounds. He added six blocks, including a memorable rejection of guard Hassani Gravett at the rim.
“You know, my career high is seven,” center Przemek Karnowski cracked, “but six is still good.”
Collins told roommate Nigel Williams-Goss before the game he was primed for a breakout performance. The 7-footer delivered with rebounds, blocks and one giant 3-pointer.
His 3-pointer gave Gonzaga the lead for good, 68-67, with 6 minutes, 40 seconds left and was additional proof it was the freshman’s night. The ball wedged between the backboard and the rim for a split second before dropping through.
“I don’t know how it went in,” Collins said. “I’ve never seen a shot go in like that before, but I’m happy it did.”
Collins led the way as GU’s bench totaled 22 points, 19 rebounds, eight blocks and four assists.
Shutting down Sindarius
South Carolina standout Sindarius Thornwell entered the game with a tournament-best 25.8-point scoring average. He also provided some bulletin-board material on the eve the game, saying: “I think Gonzaga is really nervous.”
That was news to the Zags, who limited Thornwell to one first-half field goal and just 15 points on 4-of-12 shooting. Jordan Mathews, Silas Melson and Williams-Goss took turns guarding Thornwell.
“They just crowd the paint,” Thornwell said. “They forced me to pass it out on my drives and (they) just protected the rim really well.”
Minus Thornwell’s typical production, the Gamecocks had to find alternative scoring sources. PJ Dozier and Chris Silva combined for 30 points but made only 10 of 28 shots. South Carolina shot 38% from the field against Gonzaga, which was No. 1 on defense in KenPom’s analytics.
“I guess (the Gamecocks) were making comments before the game that we were the most nervous team in the tournament,” Williams-Goss said. “We’ve just heard everything this year – the (weak) conference, haven’t played tight games, we’re not tough. To be 37-1 and playing in the last game of the season, it’s just a blessing.”
Nigel takes over
Big stages tend to bring out the best in star players. Williams-Goss, who earned All-American and Academic All-American honors, put on a vintage performance with 23 points, six assists and five rebounds in 36 minutes.
Williams-Goss twisted his right ankle with about 16 minutes left, but he remained in the game. He made 9 of 16 shots, including 2 of 5 from distance, and all three of his free-throw attempts.
“I could definitely feel it while I was moving out there,” he said. “At this point, nothing is going to stop me from playing.”
Williams-Goss was his crafty self, hitting runners, 3-pointers and creating for teammates as the Zags shot 48.3% from the floor.
The rally, the response
Gonzaga made it look easy – for a while. Collins, Karnowski and Johnathan Williams dominated inside, Williams-Goss scored 23 points in the first 29 minutes, Mathews made four 3s and Melson added a pair of 3-pointers.
It added up to a 65-51 lead near the 11-minute mark, but the Gamecocks followed their tournament-long script with another impressive comeback. South Carolina rattled off 16 straight points to take a 67-65 edge with 7:06 remaining.
The Zags fought back with a 7-0 run, launched by Collins’ kind-bounce 3-pointer. Williams-Goss fed Karnowski for a two-handed flush and Karnowski added a layup on a pretty high-low feed from Collins.
Williams connected on a pair of free throws to boost GU’s lead to five with 3 minutes left. Collins hit a free throw to make it 75-72, and the freshman followed by swatting Thornwell’s shot.
The Zags opted to foul with 3.5 seconds left to prevent South Carolina from attempting a potential game-tying 3-pointer. Thornwell made the first, missed the second intentionally, and freshly inserted freshman Killian Tillie grabbed the rebound. The Frenchman coolly hit two free throws to seal the win.
“Our maturity stood out,” Mathews said. “They’re in the Final Four for a reason. They were down at half in three of their four NCAA Tournament games. We knew they were going to make a run. It was just a matter of weathering the storm and playing to the end.”
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