SALT LAKE CITY – Some wins ride on a little more than just talent – they require a bit of luck.
At some point in the NCAA Tournament, players know they’ll need a lucky bounce, a missed shot, a deflected pass or even a bad call to get them past some of the nation’s best and on to the next round.
In Gonzaga’s 79-73 win over Northwestern on Saturday that sent GU to the Sweet 16 and ended the Wildcats’ first run in the NCAA Tournament, Gonzaga’s Jordan Mathews knew he had caught a lucky break down the stretch that helped to keep the Zags from falling behind.
Gonzaga piled up a 20-point lead in the first half, but the Wildcats fought back and rallied behind a series of 3-point plays in the second that closed Northwestern’s deficit to single digits.
The Wildcats pushed the same “hammer” play over and over again throughout the second half, in which Northwestern’s Bryant McIntosh would toss the ball to a Wildcat in the corner of the court for a 3-point shot.
In the final two minutes of the game, McIntosh looked to run the play again in attempt to narrow Gonzaga’s lead to four. McIntosh looked for Vic Law, who had already drained four 3s, in the corner of the court. Mathews held pressure on Law before an offensive screen blocked Mathews out and left Law open for a quick pass from McIntosh.
But Mathews wasn’t going to switch out Law to one his teammates to guard.
“They had run that hammer play about four times, and we switched it a bunch of times and this time I was like, ‘I’m not switching it. No matter what I’m not switching it,’ ” Mathews said.
Mathews broke through the screen and closed in on Law again just as McIntosh hurled the ball to the sophomore forward to complete Northwestern’s signature 3-point play. Mathews lost sight of the pass and threw out his hands in front of Law, who couldn’t grab the pass before it hit Mathews’ forearm and deflected to the back court.
“I just threw my arm out and it hit my arm and, I don’t know, he must have thrown a bullet because to go that far in the back court, there was some speed on it,” Mathews said.
Gonzaga guard Silas Melson caught the deflection near the 3-point line on the other side of the floor. He tossed it up to GU freshman Killian Tillie, who caught it near the rim and stuffed it. The alley-oop caused a big roar from the crowd, particularly from the fans piled in the stands right behind the GU bench.
“I was just like, ‘Throw me the ball right now, I’ll dunk it’ ” Tillie said. “Silas did an amazing pass for me and I just dunked it and everybody went crazy. I loved it.”
Tillie’s dunk gave the Zags a 72-63 lead with 1:36 left in the game, enough cushion to maintain a lead in Northwestern’s last-minute push that racked up 10 more points.
Tillie’s dunk capped off a long list of plays throughout the game that seemed to have required some good fortune on Gonzaga’s side. Mathews described GU’s lucky moments against the Wildcats as exceptional defense. He said his deflection in the final minute, which was credited as a steal, was just a result of trusting his gut, tossing up his arms and hoping something would happen in GU’s favor.
“I just tried to make a play,” Mathews said. “I just let my instincts take over instead of thinking so much.”
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