GLENDALE, Ariz. – The moderator informed media assembled in a large interview room: “Gonzaga has arrived.”
Junior guard Nigel Williams-Goss heard the announcement as he climbed the stairs to the dais and said to no one in particular: “Like we like to say, ‘We here.’ ”
The Zags are here, all right, on the grandest stage in all of college basketball, fending off seventh-seeded South Carolina 77-73 Saturday at University of Phoenix Stadium to advance to Monday’s national championship.
And they arrived in style, answering the Gamecocks’ 16-0 second-half run with a touch of luck – Zach Collins’ 3-pointer temporarily wedging between the rim and backboard before trickling in – but mostly with guts and guile in the most pressure-packed situation they’ve encountered in this magical season.
“That run South Carolina made, that just shows the heart of a lion they have,” coach Mark Few said. “It took everything we had to hold them off and come back.”
Everything was going according to Gonzaga’s plan for the first 29 minutes. Gonzaga carved up a South Carolina defense that ranked second nationally behind the Zags’ in Ken Pomeroy’s analytics-based ratings.
The Zags pounded the ball inside against South Carolina’s undersized frontcourt. Silas Melson and Jordan Mathews banged in five first-half 3-pointers to keep the Gamecocks’ defense honest.
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Williams-Goss returned to form after a couple of so-so NCAA Tournament performances by his All-American standards. He hit a pair of 3s, his trademark runners in the lane and did his customary filling of the rest of the stat sheet.
It added up to a 65-51 lead that looked insurmountable with 11 minutes left.
It wasn’t. South Carolina caught up in just 3:20, and then the Gamecocks pulled ahead, 67-65. Suddenly, the Zags trailed in the second half for only the fourth time this season.
Their response? Do what they’ve done all year. Throw it inside to Collins and Przemek Karnowski. Guard like the best defensive team in the nation.
It’s just that they haven’t had to do it often in crunch time.
“I was just really, really proud of our late-game execution,” Few said. “That’s been a topic of discussion because we haven’t really had many close games, but we practice it a lot. The guys executed it perfectly, especially down the last four minutes.
Collins’ imprint was all over the final seven minutes.
His kind-bounce 3-pointer gave GU the lead. Williams-Goss drove and dished to Karnowski for a dunk. Collins connected with Karnowski on a pretty high-low feed and Gonzaga led by five.
“We weren’t scared or nervous,” Collins said. “We were, ‘C’mon, we gotta start playing.’ Luckily, we flipped a switch and started locking down defensively.”
Rakym Felder couldn’t finish over Collins inside and the 7-foot freshman hit 1 of 2 free throws for a 75-72 lead. The Zags opted to foul to prevent South Carolina from attempting a potential tying 3-pointer.
Few inserted Killian Tillie for rebounding purposes and the freshman with a nose for the ball pulled down the board when South Carolina missed the second free throw intentionally.
Tillie made two free throws to seal the victory. Bedlam and Williams-Goss shouting at anyone within earshot.
“I guess (the Gamecocks) were making comments before the game that we were the most nervous team in the tournament,” Williams-Goss said later. “We just heard everything this year – the (weak) conference, haven’t played tight games, we’re not tough.
“To be 37-1 and playing in the last game of the season, it’s just a blessing and I couldn’t be more happy to be playing with these guys.”