Whatever your feelings about Jim Nantz, you must admit one thing.
The CBS play-by-play man can turn a phrase.
“They were the last team (in the nation) to lose,” Nantz said of Gonzaga following its 77-73 NCAA semifinal win over South Carolina on Saturday night, “and Monday night they’ll try to be the last team to win.”
Yes, the Bulldogs will.
But only after prevailing in, as Nantz called it, “a street fight in Phoenix.”
Talk about getting to the essence of a game in five words.
- In the first half Przemek Karnowski was floored after Chris Silva raked him across the face, injuring the senior’s right eye and causing him to miss the final 5 minutes, 12 seconds before halftime for treatment. Despite the obvious blow and referee John Higgins standing a couple feet away, no foul was called.
- The Zags, who led by nine at intermission, threw the next punch, though this time it was figurative. They built the lead up to 14 twice, the last time 65-51 with 10:55 to play. However the Bulldogs were already in foul trouble and it would get worse. At one point in the second half they would have 11 team fouls vs. four for South Carolina, one of the more physical defensive teams in the nation. A brawl was building.
- The Gamecocks fought back with a 16-0 run labeled “unbelievable” by Bill Raftery, taking the lead 67-65 on two Rakym Felder free throws. There were just 7 minutes left.
- And then freshman Zach Collins threw a couple of haymakers that may have decided it. A 3-pointer from the top of the key that squished against the back iron and dropped in, giving GU a 68-67 lead. A battle won on the defensive glass. And, after Nigel Williams-Goss penetrated and fed Karnowski for a dunk, Collins did the same off a high-low pass.
- The final blow? Also delivered by a freshman. Killian Tillie made both ends of a one-and-one free throw opportunity with 2.2 seconds left, securing the majority decision, 77-73.
- SEE ALSO: 3 keys to the Bulldogs’ 77-73 win
Maybe it was all part of Mark Few’s plan, after breezing through much of this magical season.
“They’ve been knocking us for not playing any close games,” he said, smiling, to CBS’ Tracy Wolfson afterward.
And, as Williams-Goss noted right after that, there is one more game left. With a lot riding on the outcome.
“We’re 40 minutes away from a national championship,” said the transfer point guard who led Gonzaga all year and with 23 points and six assists in this one.
But you don’t win 36 games and fight through a semifinal contest in which you were whistled for seven more fouls than the opposition without multiple options.
Especially when some of your better ones were ineffective.
Josh Perkins didn’t score, and fouled out after playing just 22 minutes.
Jordan Mathews was just 4-of-11 shooting. Silas Melson hit two early 3-pointers and nothing else. Tillie played just seven minutes.
Johnathan Williams, who has been superb throughout the tournament, scored just seven points and grabbed only two rebounds. He was saddled with foul trouble. Notice a theme here?
So how did the Zags survive?
Collins, for one reason. He had 14 points, 13 rebounds, six blocks and at least another five shot alterations. And he played most of the second half with three, then four, fouls.
Few played Collins and Karnowski – 13 points, five rebounds, three assists despite also finishing with, yes, you guessed it, four fouls – together often, especially late.
The Gamecocks, with star Sindarius Thornwell playing as if he was still under the weather, missing 8 of 12 shots, couldn’t answer.
That’s despite shooting nine more free throws than the Zags.
It didn’t matter. And maybe Grant Hill, who is the ex-player counterpoint for the ex-coach Raftery on CBS’ coverage, identified the reason why.
“How about this Gonzaga team keeping their composure, just like their coach, down the stretch,” he said as Few celebrated with his team.
One more game awaits. One more battle. One more chance to make history.
One more for the national title.