SALT LAKE CITY – Senior forward Elias Harris saw blue. Gonzaga, as the higher seed, was wearing white jerseys so he knew that wasn’t a good thing.
Southern coach Roman Banks said Wednesday he wanted to come up with a game plan to counter Gonzaga’s size advantage. That’s just what he did, collapsing defenders into the paint to take away the Zags’ high-low offense and leaving little room for the Bulldogs’ bigs to operate.
“I looked around at times when I had the ball and I only saw light-blue (Jaguars) jerseys all around me,” said Harris, who had a season-low five points on 2-of-10 shooting. “They tried to take the big guys away, the power game inside and hope our guards would miss shots. At the end of the day, we knocked down big shots.”
Jumpers by Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. in the closing minutes helped Gonzaga hold off Southern 64-58 on Thursday at EnergySolutions Arena.
“You can’t take everything away,” Harris said. “Something is going to be open. Our guards were going to be open.”
Before it got to that point, the Zags adjusted and junior forward Kelly Olynyk, limited to four points in the first half, took over for the first 14 minutes of the second. He dunked on a pick-and-roll feed from Pangos on Gonzaga’s first possession. That combination worked numerous times.
“They exploited us a little bit and were able to separate,” Banks said. “And it was tough trying to climb that mountain, trying to get back within a possession or two.”
Olynyk finished with 21 points. He made 6 of 8 shots and 5 of 7 free throws in the second half.
“I told Kevin in the first half, ‘That pocket pass is open,’ but they clogged the lane a lot in the first half,” Olynyk said. “It’s his read on the pick-and-roll and it kind of opened up in the second half.”
Olynyk also had success posting up against thinner Jaguars’ defenders, including 6-foot-9, 200-pound Madut Bol, 200-pound Malcolm Moore and 215-pound Brandon Moore.
David Stockton, playing in the building where his father, John, put together a Hall of Fame career with the Utah Jazz, made an immediate impact when he entered in the first half. He piled up five assists and hit a pretty floater over the outstretched hand of a defender for a three-point play.
Stockton finished with four points and seven assists in 29 minutes, one shy of his season high.
“He was making plays and I thought he was having one of his really good games,” Few said. “I thought about getting Kyle (Dranginis) in because I thought he would make some plays, Mike (Hart) had foul trouble and I knew we had to make some shots.”
Stockton said he talked to his dad, but it wasn’t for advice.
“To tell you the truth, I think he tried to avoid me but I called him,” David said. “He didn’t really say much about it. I just said, ‘It was pretty cool, you did a lot for this city and for me.’ It’s just a great feeling.
“He knows I’ve been around the NCAAs and this stuff a long time and I can handle it.”
New fan favorites
There exists a myriad of anecdotal evidence to support the idea that Gonzaga has fully shucked its status as a midmajor program. But as Southern mounted its comeback against the Bulldogs, all you had to do was listen to understand just how big the Bulldogs have become.
Neutral observers apparently don’t root for them anymore. At least not when their opponent is a 16-seed on the verge of potential history. The majority of the announced crowd of 14,176 threw their lungs behind the underdog Jaguars, making Gonzaga’s “Cinderella” days seem that much more distant.
Even coach Mark Few was a bit taken aback.
“To be honest with you, it was a surprise to me, here in Salt Lake,” Few said. “But again, I think everybody was so moved by their resilience and their confidence.”
Respect for Mitchell
Southern junior forward Javan Mitchell scored only seven points and grabbed just four rebounds. His biggest contributions were on defense, where he blocked three shots and helped make life difficult for Olynyk and Harris.
But Few said Mitchell’s offensive game concerned him enough that the Bulldogs had to double down on him when he caught the ball in the post, a defensive tactic rarely employed by GU this season.
“He was a load one-on-one in there,” Few said.
“I expected that team to come out and give it their all,” Harris said of Southern. “Obviously you’re not favored when you come in as a 16-seed. I think they did a phenomenal job, really, and I give them a lot of credit.”
Mitchell said he wasn’t surprised that Southern was able to contest Gonzaga in the paint as well as it did. The Jaguars blocked eight shots.
“Almost all of our team has legs,” Mitchell said, “so I was thinking we could block shots.”