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,” Steven Gray said.
Message received. And message sent. This is one tough gang of Zags.
That showed Friday night before 18,948 mostly Orange-clad fans at the HSBC Arena.
The Bulldogs didn’t tiptoe into their NCAA tournament first-round matchup with Florida State, the nation’s top-rated defensive team. They exploded.
They delivered blows. They counter-punched. Sure, they took a couple of eight-counts. But they survived. Or, more precisely, toughed it out.
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,” Bouldin said 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 2:18, pulling FSU within 59-55 – the Bulldogs kept their poise.
A poise 33 games in the making.
“It just takes a lot of time,” coach Mark Few said. “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 of 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.”