SALT LAKE CITY – Down the stretch, Gonzaga coach Mark Few began treating it just like a road game.
The majority of the 14,176 inside EnergySolutions Arena had gravitated to underdog Southern University, sensing the possibility of a 16-seed knocking off a No. 1 for the first time in NCAA tournament history. They roared with every clutch Jaguars’ play – a ridiculous fadeaway 3-pointer by Derick Beltran, a pair of game-tying free throws by Brandon Moore, another score-knotting jumper by Beltran.
Few hunkered down with his players during the last three timeouts.
“Hey, it’s fine,” he told them. “We’ve been in this (situation), where the whole place has kind of turned. I kept telling them, ‘It doesn’t matter. The crowd doesn’t get a say in this, the officials don’t get a say in this. Nobody gets a say in what happens next except us.’”
Kevin Pangos said plenty with a jumper and a step-back 3. Gary Bell, one of the team’s quietest players, made some noise with a 3-pointer off a Pangos assist. When Pangos made a pair of free throws with 14.3 seconds left, top-seeded Gonzaga had finally turned back the fearless Jaguars, 64-58, on Thursday.
“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t,” Pangos said, when asked if doubt was creeping into his head. “Of course, it did a little bit, but I think we did a great job of getting rid of it quick and not thinking, ‘What if we lose,’ but instead saying, ‘Let’s go win this and be the aggressor.’”
Kelly Olynyk did most of the heavy lifting with 17 second-half points before Pangos and Bell delivered in the closing minutes. In that sense, this one had the feel of Oklahoma State in Stillwater, when Bell drained a huge 3 late in a Gonzaga win, and Washington State in Pullman, when Pangos shook off a tough shooting night with a game-winning bank shot just before the buzzer.
“Those were kind of daggers for (Southern),” said Olynyk, who finished with 21 points and 10 boards for his fifth career double-double.
“The fact they’re both sophomores, it’s kind of amazing the way they step up,” Few marveled. “And they just drilled them, too.”
No. 1-ranked Bulldogs (32-2) will face ninth-seeded Wichita State, a 73-55 winner over No. 8 Pittsburgh, at 5:40 p.m. on Saturday. Gonzaga will be trying to earn its first trip to the Sweet 16 since 2009.
The Bulldogs scored the game’s first seven points, but the rout many expected never materialized as Southern (23-10) responded with eight straight points. David Stockton handed out five assists as the Bulldogs led by as many six in the first half, only to see Southern rally time after time.
“They’d hit a big shot or make a big play,” Pangos said. “That made it difficult for us to feel comfortable.”
The Bulldogs, who led 34-31 at half, had little room to operate inside against Southern’s sagging, paint-conscious defense. When the Zags did get the ball close to the rim, their shots were often met with resistance. Moore and Javan Mitchell combined for seven of Southern’s eight blocks.
GU was finally able to get Olynyk loose on pick-and-rolls, or by posting up a smaller defender. He scored 15 of Gonzaga’s first 18 points in the second half and the Bulldogs appeared to have shaken Southern when they took a 52-41 lead with 9:31 remaining.
Not so fast. Yondarius Johnson buried a 3 and Beltran, who had 14 of his 21 points in the second half, started making everything, whether he was open or tightly guarded. Suddenly, GU’s lead was gone and the crowd was in full throat.
Pangos and Bell made sure GU reached the finish line first.
“We’re not really here for style points,” said Elias Harris, who was held to five points, 10 below his average. “Everyone says we have to win by 30 and that doesn’t happen and everybody is going to say, ‘Do they really deserve a No. 1 seed? Is it that good a team?’
“But a win is a win, especially during tournament time a win is precious. We have to keep our heads high and come out with more energy in the next game. And just fight again.”