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 on defense than offense.
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 to less than 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 Robert 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 3:54, including a pair that could have narrowed the deficit to two with 1:37 left. 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 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.”
See boxscore on page C21.