NEW YORK – Apparently, some of the younger players on Gonzaga University’s remarkable men’s basketball team didn’t get the memo on how they were expected to act when playing against one of the nation’s legendary programs on the biggest stage imaginable.
At least, it certainly seemed that was the case on Wednesday night, when sophomores Josh Heytvelt and Jeremy Pargo and freshman Matt Bouldin came up big in the Bulldogs’ stunning 82-74 win over No. 2-ranked North Carolina in the semifinals of the Dick’s Sporting Goods NIT Season Tip-Off in Madison Square Garden.
Senior guard Derek Raivio finished as the Zags’ scoring leader with 21 points, but Heytvelt, Pargo and Bouldin played well beyond their experience levels in combining for 49 points and making several keys plays down the stretch when the Tar Heels were staging a stirring comeback.
Heytvelt finished with 19 points and eight rebounds, Pargo added 16 points, and Bouldin chipped in with 14 points and a game-high six assists as GU (5-0) earned a spot in Friday’s championship game against Butler (5-0), a surprise 56-44 winner over No. 21 Tennessee in Wednesday’s other semifinal showdown.
UNC (3-1) will play Tennessee (4-1) in Friday’s 1:30 p.m. consolation game.
“It was a great, great night for our team and our program,” GU coach Mark Few said after watching his Bulldogs fritter away a large chunk of the 65-49 lead they had built less than eight minutes into the second half. “Any time you can beat a program and a team like North Carolina, it’s a great thing.”
The Zags made this one look like anything but a fluke, handling the Tar Heels’ considerable defensive pressure throughout most the game, holding their own on the boards and throttling UNC’s standout sophomore Tyler Hansbrough, who finished with only nine points and nine rebounds.
“The best team won the game tonight, and the coach that did the best job was on the other bench,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams graciously said after watching his team become the highest-rated team GU has ever beaten. “They executed what they wanted to do and we did not execute what we wanted to do.”
With the 6-foot-9 Hansbrough trying unsuccessfully to deal with a double-team nearly every time he touched the ball down low, UNC struggled to keep pace offensively. The Tar Heels shot just 36.8 (25 of 68) percent from the field and, had it not been for their 18-10 edge in free throws, they might not have been in position to stage the late-game comeback that sliced GU’s once-comfortable lead to 70-68 with a little over four minutes remaining.
The Zags were struggling mightily against UNC’s trapping half-court defense at that point. But with some of his teammates looking a bit frantic, Pargo took charge by converting a three-point play on a difficult drive to the basket. And the unshakable soph took things even further, assisting David Pendergraft on an inside bucket and then drawing a charging foul on the Tar Heels’ ensuing possession.
“That was a huge play he made to kind of stem the tide,” Few said of Pargo’s three-point play.
“The opportunity presented itself to get to the basket and lay it in,” Pargo said, “so I took advantage of it. A lot of people doubt the play of Gonzaga now that Adam (Morrison) is gone, and we’ve just been preparing for a moment like this.”
GU’s unexpected win came despite a dreadful start that saw UNC score the game’s first 10 points.
It was junior Abdullahi Kuso, a first-year junior college transfer, who helped shake the Zags out of their early funk. The active 6-9 forward scored eight straight points after his team had missed its first seven shots and had fallen behind 14-2.
Then the Bulldogs ran a variety of different lineups at the Tar Heels, playing with four guards for long stretches of time. And somehow managed to keep the shackles on Hansbrough, who came in averaging over 22 points a game.
“He just didn’t even attack,” Heytvelt said of Hansbrough. “Just the fact that we played such good defense on him got him thinking that he couldn’t go to work on us.”
Williams admitted he was perplexed by Hansbrough’s lack of production – especially on the offensive end of the court.
“We did a very poor job of giving him the basketball,” he said, “and he probably did the least effective job he’s maybe ever done as far as moving without the basketball.”
But in the end, it was Gonzaga’s cool young guns that made the difference.
“I thought Matt was huge out there,” Few said of his 6-5 freshman. “Josh started slow, but once he got that first block it kind of got his juices flowing and became a man out there. And I thought Jeremy made some big plays down the stretch, when everybody else was looking a little scattered out there.”
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