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 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.
“Obviously, we came here to win a ballgame,” Banks said, “not to play a ballgame.”
“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.”