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Zags get the job done

Gonzaga's impressive first half was enough to stave off Florida State on Friday. Gonzaga (27-6) will face No. 1-seeded and fourth-ranked Syracuse on Sunday at 9:10 a.m. PDT. Syracuse (29-4) cruised over Vermont 79-56 in Friday’s nightcap in front of an Orange-clad crowd of 18,948.

Click on the link to read the game story and Vince Grippi's column.

Here's the game story ...

BUFFALO, N.Y. – You’ve heard of football coaches scripting the first 10 plays. It looked like Gonzaga’s men’s basketball coaching staff pretty much scripted everything that happened in the first half against Florida State.

The Bulldogs got quality shots, a few easy baskets, inside points, outside points and points at the free-throw line against what some consider the best defensive team in the nation. And Gonzaga might have been even better defensively than offensively.

As it turned out, Gonzaga needed every bit of that smooth first half to endure a white-knuckle finish as Florida State trimmed a 16-point halftime deficit to four before the Bulldogs finished off a 67-60 first-round NCAA tournament win Friday at HSBC Arena.

“For us to come all the way across the country, play the No..1 defensive team and be able to execute the way we did to win a game like that, I’m extremely proud of our guys,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “I thought our mindset was great from the start.”

Gonzaga (27-6) will face No..1-seeded and fourth-ranked Syracuse on Sunday at 9:10 a.m. PDT. Syracuse (29-4) cruised over Vermont 79-56 in Friday’s nightcap in front of an Orange-clad crowd of 18,948.

The eighth-seeded Bulldogs shot 50 percent against the Seminoles, who lead the nation in field-goal percentage defense (37.4). FSU (22-10) had held 67 consecutive opponents below 50 percent.

Gonzaga did it with balance. Matt Bouldin had 14 of his 17 points in the second half. Steven Gray added 15 points, including a key jumper with 2:36 left and the shot-clock dwindling that boosted GU’s lead to seven. Demetri Goodson added nine points and made 3 of 4 free throws in the final 62 seconds. Forwards Elias Harris and Rob Sacre each had 13 points and outplayed FSU counterparts Solomon Alabi and Chris Singleton.

The two FSU players came in with solid credentials. They were on the ACC’s All-Defensive team and Singleton, who had a conference-leading 71 steals, was the ACC defensive player of the year. The 7-foot-1 Alabi, who had 74 blocks in the regular season, blocked one shot and Singleton finished with zero steals.

“We weren’t going to back down,” said Sacre, who had a team-high nine boards as GU won that category 38-32. “If they blocked it, we were going to keep going back at them.”

Gonzaga found its rhythm with an early 9-0 spurt. Harris and Goodson scored on layups, Harris nailed a 3-pointer on an inbounds play and Bouldin had his only field goal of the half with a 6-footer in transition.

“We executed very well and dished off, lots of extra passes,” Harris said. “Just simple basketball.”

Another 9-0 burst, with Sacre scoring seven points, hiked Gonzaga’s lead to 22-7.

“We felt like we hit them first,” Bouldin said. “We were really tough-minded. It couldn’t have gone any better.”

The Seminoles never scored on consecutive possessions in the first half. They made 6 of 28 shots, 3 of 23 when you subtract Alabi’s 3-of-5 shooting. Alabi had two highlight-reel dunks, but that was about the extent of FSU’s offense as GU led 35-19.

That changed in the second half. FSU scored 19 points in the first 8:40 and the Seminoles ratcheted up the defensive pressure. Gonzaga was still on top, 51-38, after Goodson sped in for a transition layup, but backup wings Deividas Dulkys and Luke Loucks struck for four 3-pointers in a 7-minute span as FSU pulled within 59-55.

“I thought we adjusted mentally and emotionally at halftime,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. “We just wanted to win the 4-minute segments. We won just about all of them until the last several minutes. And then we faltered at the free-throw line.”

Seminoles’ guard Michael Snaer missed three free throws in the final 1:37, including a pair that could have narrowed the deficit to two. GU, meanwhile, made 8 of 10 in crunch time to hold off the Seminoles.

Dulkys made four 3s, including one that he banked home with 2:18 left that left Steven Gray staring at GU’s bench in disbelief, to lead FSU with 14 points. Alabi added 13 points and six boards. FSU made just 35.6 percent of its shots and 12 of 20 at the foul line.

Florida State did hang with it, hang with it and they pushed us all the way to the very end,” Few said. “But these guys did a great job of keeping their poise.”

•••

And here's Vince Grippi's column ...

BUFFALO, N.Y. – From the very moment Florida State's name popped up on the hi-def screen Selection Sunday, the Gonzaga coaches started harping. And they didn't stop.

"They were just letting us know we can't tiptoe into a street fight," said Steven Gray.

Message received. And message sent. This is one tough gang of Zags.

That showed Friday night before 18,948 mostly Orange-clad fans in the HSBC Arena.

The Bulldogs didn't tiptoe into their NCAA tournament first-round matchup with FSU, the nation's top-rated defensive team. They exploded.

They delivered blows. They counter-punched. Sure, they took a couple 8-counts. But they survived. Or, more precisely, toughed it out.

And that starts exactly where it should, with Matt Bouldin.

It was the 6-foot-5 senior who ventured into the land of the giants – FSU is the nation's tallest team – over and over again.

He battled his way to a game high 17 points and nine rebounds, including one that required winning a UFC match with 7-1, 251-pound Solomon Alabi late in the first half, helping spark a seven-zip run that gave GU an 18-point lead.

"(In the) NCAA tournament, every single board, every single loose ball, every hustle play, really, is going to be a battle," said Bouldin following his sixth tourney game. "And I think those are keys to winning games. If you come out and get more loose balls, more hustle plays than the other team, you've got a good shot at winning. That's how it is."

And how it was.

The Zags won for the 27th time this year in large part with efficient offense – by hitting half their field goal attempts, they became the first troop to do that against FSU in 68 games.

But their toughness, possession-by-possession, was even more important.

Florida State takes pride in beating you into submission. With Alabi, 6-9 ACC defensive player of the year Chris Singleton, 6-9 Ryan Reid and a platoon of big bodies, they try to bully their way to victory.

So the Zags did what you're supposed to do with bullies. They stood up. And FSU backed down – at least for 20 minutes.

"If you can match that toughness and that physical attitude, (you) take that advantage away," Gray said.

It wasn't just veterans Bouldin or Gray. It was also the younger Bulldogs, the ones basically experiencing March's brutality for the first time.

Like Robert Sacre. The 7-footer did it inside, bulling his way past Alabi, Reid and Singleton for 13 points, including eight as Gonzaga built a 35-19 halftime edge. He screamed, he tapped his chest, he met size with size. He helped the Zags to a 38-32 rebound advantage with nine skirmishes won.

"We knew coming to Buffalo it was going to be a Buffalo Sabres game, basically," said Sacre, a Canadian even in his descriptions.

But there is physical toughness and there is mental toughness. The Zags exhibited both.

As the Seminoles made a second-half run everyone knew was coming – the high point was Deividas Dulkys' banked 24-footer with 2 minutes, 20 seconds left, pulling FSU within 59-55 – the Bulldogs kept their poise.

A poise 33 games in the making.

"It just takes a lot of time," explained coach Mark Few. "It takes a season. And it takes putting yourself in positions like in the Breslin Center in early November with a great Michigan State team pounding on you and coming at you and try to continue to execute and make plays there, making plays on the defensive end and playing with poise."

GU did all of that in the final couple minutes – FSU freshman guard Michael Snaer helped immensely by missing two free throws with 1:37 left – including showing the fortitude to hit 8 of 10 free throws in the 15th round.

No one more so than Demetri Goodson, the point guard wearing a 54 percent free-throw mark on his back like a target. The sophomore, hacked as soon as he touched the ball, hit 3 of 4 in the last minute.

"Growing up I used to play football, so I'm not afraid to hit anybody," said Goodson, an ice bag attached to his left shoulder, courtesy of a first-half collision with Alabi. "But today, I think they got the best of me, definitely. But, hey, we came out with the victory, so we got the best of them."

And he'll try to do it again Sunday, when the Zags will face No. 4-ranked Syracuse basically in its backyard.

Big deal. They've done it before. And they have a persona of their own.

"I told my players they are kind of like gunslingers," said an admiring Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton. "I've been watching some of the old cowboy movies when the tough guy would come in town, stand on the street and take on all comers. That's kind of what they've done.

"They have gun, will travel."




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Jim Meehan
Jim Meehan's coverage areas include Gonzaga University men's basketball, Spokane Shock football, golf and volleyball. He also contributes to the SportsLink Blog.

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