Late in the game, when simple would have worked just fine, Gonzaga University opted for spectacular.
And when spectacular soured into a missed dunk, it left the Bulldogs staring at the possibility of another early exit in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
But rather than beat himself up over blowing an easy shot that could have settled the issue, Tony Skinner came back with a huge defensive play that let the Zags slip past Cincinnati, 74-69, in Thursday’s opening round of the West Regional at Huntsman Center.
Skinner, after clanking a breakaway dunk embarrassingly off the back of the rim with 26 seconds remaining, charged from the ensuing timeout and slapped away a 3-point shot by the Bearcats’ Tony Bobbitt that could have tied the game at 72.
And when teammate Ronny Turiaf dropped in a couple of free throws a few seconds later, the ninth-seeded Bulldogs (24-8) locked up a spot opposite top-seeded and No. 1 ranked Arizona in Saturday’s second-round.
“No one-and-out this time,” crowed junior center Cory Violette, referring to last year’s unexpected first-round NCAA loss to Wyoming.
Instead, the Zags are headed for a date with the Wildcats (26-3) who romped past Vermont, 80-51, in their West Regional opener. Tipoff is set for 2:40 p.m. Saturday, and the Bulldogs seem keen on the challenge that awaits.
“They’re well-rounded,” senior forward Zach Gourde said of the Wildcats. “It will be difficult, because you have to take so many different things away from them.
“But we’ve got a very solid inside presence, which was evident today, and we’ve got a couple of great guards who can get some things done for us. So, I like the matchup.”
There was plenty to like about Thursday’s, as well.
The game pitted GU’s large front line against Cincinnati’s strength, quickness and athleticism. And the Bulldogs persevered, despite shooting only 28.6 percent (6 of 21) in the second half.
Sophomore forward Ronny Turiaf finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds as GU started quickly and held off a late Bearcats surge that was mounted long after their coach, Bob Huggins, was ejected from the game after drawing back-to-back technical fouls for arguing a no-call.
Junior guard Blake Stepp added 12 points and seven assists for the Bulldogs, and senior guard Winston Brooks took advantage of his first start since Feb. 27 to score a season-high 11 points and fuel an important first-half surge.
“It’s that time of year when players like that - somebody that’s maybe not used to scoring all that much - has to step up and contribute,” said Stepp. “And that’s what Winston did. He got us on a good roll, hitting a couple of those 3s.
Brooks, a 6-1 combo guard, scored all 11 of his points in the opening half, hitting 4 of 5 baskets including at 3-pointer that was intended to be a long lob pass to Turiaf. The pass ripped through the net while Turiaf was being bodied out of bounds under the basket.
“That was my set shot,” Brooks said, jokingly, through a broad grin. “I do it every day in practice. They don’t let me shoot it in the game, though.”
Then he admitted he didn’t even see the ball go in the basket, because he was trying to see if Turiaf was going to be able to get to the pass.
The game, as expected, was brutally physical. But GU was able to match the Bearcats shove for shove.
“That’s what we talked about all week,” Bulldogs coach Mark Few said of all the bumping, banging and grabbing that took place. “And our guys are all right with that. They like it.
“There’s a lot of qualities about this team. They might not do some of the things (the media) alluded to, as far as working on their games, but they probably know how to win better than any team we’ve ever had. And if I can pick any quality to have, it’s that one.”
The Bulldogs had several chances to put Cincinnati away late in the game, but failed to close the deal. Stepp missed a lay-in off a tough drive with 1:52 left, Violette blew a dunk on a putback attempt about a minute later and Skinner capped the unsightly trifecta with his overzealous dunk attempt that would have put the Bulldogs up by five with 26 ticks left.
“We were missing close shots all night,” said Brooks, who also matched his career high in rebounds with seven. “We just told Tony to keep his head up, and he came back and made a tremendous play.
“All the credit goes to him. He could have dropped his head and pouted, or whatever, but he came back with that big block at the end.”
Skinner, a 6-5 junior with major hops, came running at Bobbitt on the left wing and batted his 3-point try away just as it left his hand.
“I wasn’t worried about fouling him,” Skinner said. “I was just trying to get there in time and, luckily, I got a clean block.”
Huggins, who was ejected less than 4 minutes into the second half after adamantly protesting a no-call after Brooks slapped the ball away from Kareem Johnson in the post, said his team’s inability to keep GU from getting its break going hurt more than Skinner’s big defensive play.
“I thought we played OK, but didn’t get back,” he said. “The whole game turned when we gave them the transitions.”
GU handled Cincinnati’s suffocating defensive pressure without much problem early, but became a bit scattered midway through the second half and made only one field goal in the last 12 minutes of the game. Fortunately for the Zags, they were able to get to the foul line 17 times and convert 12 free throws during that stretch.
The Bearcats, who got 16 points and four assists from senior point guard Taron Barker, were down 70-58 with just less than 5 minutes remaining, but put together a 12-2 run that set up Skinner’s late-game goat-to-hero act.
“Coach (Few) told me I was going to end it one way or the other, and that I ended it dramatically with the block,” Skinner said. “I wish I would have ended it with the dunk.”
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