HOUSTON – Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd was visiting with Domantas Sabonis in the locker room, reflecting on Przemek Karnowski’s two behind-the-back passes.
“Those were right out your dad’s book,” said Lloyd, referring to Sabonis’ father, Arvydas, a tremendous passing big man.
Karnowski’s passing and low-post work and GU’s trademark balance transformed a tight game into one of the biggest wins in school history, a 74-62 victory over 11th-seeded UCLA on Friday that propelled the Zags into the Elite Eight for the second time, joining the 1999 team.
“It’s the greatest,” coach Mark Few said. “It means we get to hang out again for another two days. As close as this team is, that is the absolute strongest motivating factor.”
Second-seeded Gonzaga (35-2) will meet top-seeded Duke (32-4) Sunday at 2:05 PDT with a spot in the Final Four on the line. Duke defeated No. 5 Utah 63-57.
The Zags, who lead the nation in field-goal percentage, have won many games behind a fluid offense, including an 87-74 victory over UCLA on Dec. 13. That wasn’t the case inside cavernous NRG Stadium, where both teams struggled from the perimeter.
Gonzaga made just 40 percent of its shots, including 3 of 19 3-pointers, but still put up 74 points by pounding the ball inside and cleaning up on the offensive glass.
Gonzaga’s defense bottled up a Bruins offense that had been in high gear in recent weeks.
“We haven’t won them all pretty, but that’s the beauty of this team,” Few said. “That’s why we’ve been so good, that’s why we have 35 of them. There are going to be nights when you can’t make shots from the perimeter.
“That’s the beauty of having our bigs. They did a wonderful job of slowing down and getting their touches and delivering. And it wasn’t easy; it was really physical in there. The guards were in there stripping and reaching because they knew nobody was making outside shots.”
So Gonzaga went inside. After UCLA (22-14) scored the first six points of the second half to trim Gonzaga’s lead to one, Gary Bell Jr. hit a baseline floater and then the 7-foot-1 Karnowski took over. He hit a jump hook and a pair of layups.
Kyle Wiltjer, who had a tough scoring night but contributed 10 boards, four assists and solid defense on Kevon Looney, banked home a 10-footer. Byron Wesley’s determined drive resulted in two free throws and GU led by 13 with 13:33 left.
UCLA cut it to 10 but Karnowski answered again with a jump hook and the first of his behind-the-back feeds to Sabonis.
“In practice it doesn’t always work,” said Karnowski, who finished with 18 points, nine rebounds, two assists and two blocks. “I’m glad those two worked.”
The Bruins hung around, but Karnowski dropped a fade-away jump hook and another passing gem to Sabonis for a reverse layup.
“He was fantastic,” Sabonis said. “He was getting fouls on the other bigs so they had to switch. He got me easy baskets.”
UCLA couldn’t say the same. The Bruins relied on Tony Parker’s 16 points, Norman Powell’s 12 first-half points and Isaac Hamilton’s nine second-half points to stay within striking range. Bryce Alford, averaging 24.5 points in two NCAA wins, scored eight points, six in the final 2:20. Looney was limited to nine points.
The Bruins didn’t make a 3-pointer for the first 37-plus minutes. They hit three in the closing minutes but Gonzaga was comfortably in front. UCLA shot just 39 percent overall.
“We did a good job when our shots weren’t falling of leaning on our defense and rebounding,” Wiltjer said.
The Zags won the boards 50-38. Eighteen of those were on the offensive glass, leading to a 22-12 edge in second-chance points.
“The difference was board play and one team got to the free-throw line (GU 17 of 23, UCLA 7 of 11),” Bruins coach Steve Alford said.
Gonzaga had four players score in double figures for the 21st time this season. Karnowski was joined by Wesley (14), Sabonis (12) and Kevin Pangos (10).
“That’s been the story all year,” Wesley said. “We have so many weapons it can be anybody’s night.”
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