SALT LAKE CITY – As Southern University’s players walked off the EnergySolutions Arena floor and toward their locker room, evidence mounted that these uncooperative underdogs really never believed they were going to lose.
There was junior forward Javan Mitchell, waltzing numbly past the cheerleaders, the pep band, the guy or girl in the Jaguar mascot costume. That mascot patted each player on the back, slapped him five, offered non-verbal congratulations for a battle well-fought and a season well-spent.
Even the Jaguar looked sad.
“This has been an amazing ride for us,” said coach Roman Banks, on the verge of choking up.
Turns out Southern, the 16th-seeded afterthought from the Southwestern Athletic Conference, didn’t come here to fulfill some moral obligation to try real hard, to take its loss to No. 1 Gonzaga and go home like every 16-seed before it.
That’s what happened, eventually, as the Bulldogs scored eight of the game’s final 10 points to pull away with a 64-58 win in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Thursday afternoon.
It seemed that it was only as the buzzer sounded, though, that the Jaguars even entertained the notion that they weren’t going to win.
“We play hard. We practice hard. We go through everything that a big-time school goes through,” said Mitchell, who spent 38 minutes clashing with Gonzaga frontcourt forces Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris. “We knew we had a good chance of winning and just came up short.”
Gonzaga (32-2) made its own fans sweat considerably more than expected, but the Bulldogs also provided Southern with ample opportunity to roll over.
Olynyk responded to a frustrating first half by imposing his 7-foot will on Southern’s athletic-but-undersized big men. Gonzaga used a basic pick-and-roll to repeatedly free Olynyk underneath, and he scored 17 of the Bulldogs’ first 19 points of the second half to help push GU to a 52-41 lead with 9:37 to play.
But the Jaguars, insistent Wednesday that they never bothered to view themselves as the plucky little guys, intent only on playing a basketball game and trying to win it, proved they had some weapons of their own.
“The more I watched them on tape,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, “the more I thought, ‘these guys are going to be a handful.’“
Senior guard Derick Beltran was almost more than Gonzaga could handle. He scored 11 of his 21 points in the game’s final 7:21, including a 3-pointer in the face of GU guard Gary Bell that qualified as poster material.
“He was feeling it,” Bell said. “When you’re feeling it, I guess you don’t need that much room.”
That shot brought Southern (23-10) within 54-52 with 5:19 to play. A vast majority of the 12,621 in attendance suddenly turned Jaguars fans, the noise of Southern’s bandwagon drowning out that of the concerned Gonzaga supporters seated behind the Bulldogs’ bench.
A school one year removed from a postseason ban and two years removed from a four-win season was on the cusp of becoming the first 16-seed to win a game in the NCAA tournament.
“I didn’t think about it, because we were trying to win,” said Beltran, who made Southern’s only two 2-point field goals in the second half. “No shot, no possession was bigger than the next. We were just trying to get the win.”
They tied the score twice, but were done in by a Bell 3-pointer and a nasty step-back 3 by GU guard Kevin Pangos in the corner with 1:55 left.
Also, they were done in by a lack of offense inside the 3-point arc (10 for 23 from 3, 8 for 23 from everywhere else), and an inability to contain Olynyk – though Southern recorded eight blocked shots and made things difficult for both he and Harris, who finished with five points – for most of the second half.
So Southern’s locker room was silent afterward. Players stared ahead at nothing. Others dressed slowly, as if to savor every fleeting minute of their stay here. Junior guard Malcolm Miller, the team’s second-leading scorer, answered questions in the middle of the room, mustering enough perspective amid the din of dejection to summarize the meaning of a season that already lasted longer than most anticipated.
“It means that we can play with some of the best teams in the country, and we work hard every day for it,” said Miller, who sat for much of the second half as Southern tried to defend Gonzaga’s size with different players. “And even though we were underestimated, we know what we can do. We’re just trying to bring back the legacy of how Southern used to be.”
The Southern envisioned by Miller and his teammates – the one that made believers of an arena full of neutral observers – doesn’t bother with moral victories.
“Obviously, we came here to win a ballgame,” Banks said, “not to play a ballgame.”
“No,” Beltran said, “not at all.”
“It doesn’t feel good at all,” said point guard Jameel Grace. “No one likes a loser, and unfortunately, that’s what we were today.”
That’s where he might be wrong. Folks here seemed to like them plenty.