BOISE – March Madness began in earnest Thursday amid a swarm of killer 3s.
Donte Ingram’s buzzer shot for Loyola-Chicago stung Miami. E.C. Matthews of Rhode Island made two in overtime to take down Oklahoma and Trae Young, suggesting the wrong player answers to the sound of “Trey.”
But no one created a buzz like Big Shot Snacks.
When Zach Norvell Jr. rose up in front of the Gonzaga bench to launch the 3-pointer that buried UNC Greensboro and unleash the roar that bowed the walls of Taco Bell Arena, he didn’t just write himself into Zags lore as the primary author of a 68-64 victory. He earned himself the gratitude of the angst-ridden fan base sweating out what had loomed as the NCAA Tournament’s first serious upset.
To say nothing of saving Gonzaga’s always delicate profile.
The Zags won over hearts and minds nationwide with the Final Four run of 2017. So to exit in the first round the next year? Yikes.
Such ignominy weighs like a cotton raincoat – size XXXL – in a monsoon. To shuck it requires a little luck and a lot of will.
“And I’m a really confident guy,” Norvell proclaimed.
Hey, who let Captain Obvious into March Madness?
Novell’s confidence is as certain as a politician’s chutzpah. The surprise on Thursday was that he made that dagger with 23 seconds left – because he’d missed six consecutive 3s after an early first-half make – and not that he took it.
“I don’t know how many shots I missed tonight,” he said from the interview room podium.
“A lot,” coach Mark Few darted him.
But that’s the thing. The freshman from Chicago never knows, because he never seems to remember. That poor recall is a shortcoming to treasure.
It was evident in the early stages of the 2017-2018 seasons – his hot second halves in games a crazy counterbalance to some unsightly firsts. And as the season wore on, his knack for the big shot became something of a trademark – the seven overtime points to save the Zags against North Dakota, the tie-breaking 3 late against BYU, the no-no-no-yes special against San Diego.
This was of another dimension, of course – Gonzaga’s biggest first-round bucket since Casey Calvary’s putback to beat Virginia back in 2001.
“I don’t know what Snacks was from 3 before that,” said teammate Silas Melson, “but that left his mind a while ago. He’s a big-time player who makes big-time shots, and our confidence in him is through the roof. When he takes that shot we’re not even worried.”
Confidence? The Zags essentially drew up the play for him. It started with a side ball-screen by Killian Tillie, who would have been available for a pass had the Spartans jumped Norvell, “but anytime Snacks has the ball in that situation, there’s a good chance he’s going to take it,” assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said.
Norvell barely bothered with Tillie’s screen, instead using a head fake to create some space with his defender.
Any doubt that he’d shoot it?
“Not really,” Norvell admitted.
It had followed only slightly less nervy shot by Josh Perkins – off another Tillie ball screen – that tied the score after UNCG’s game-changing rally. Then the Spartans’ Francis Alonso got nailed for a push off (“he’d been doing it all game – I was just hoping they’d call it,” said Melson), but the Zags missed 3 of 4 foul shots in the last 16 seconds. Their lucky break: Marvin Smith’s attempt at a tying 3 went halfway down before popping out.
The Spartans went 3 of 22 from deep, which just illustrates how well their 1-2-2 press messed with Gonzaga’s rhythm. They’re the soundest double-digit seed the Zags have met in the NCAAs, at least going back to Wyoming in 2002.
Gonzaga obviously will need to play better Saturday against Ohio State, which itself struggled to get past South Dakota State – GU’s first-round victim a year ago. Some psychological baggage to finesse in that one, what with the Zags hanging a 27-point beating on the Buckeyes back in November.
But you can’t devalue Gonzaga’s cool. After Perkins’ tying shot, he made eye contact with Few and said, “We’ve got this.”
And they had Snacks Norvell, the one-time adolescent junk food freak with the sugar-rush game – who, as it happens, was Donte Ingram’s high school teammate at Simeon Career Academy in Chicago. One high school, two NCAA game winners on the same day.
“He’s just wired to – he’s going to make a play,” Few said. “Now, sometimes it’s a bad play and sometimes it’s a bad shot.
“Prior to that shot, guys, he was 2 for 11. So it wasn’t exactly one of his greatest games in the Zag uni. But I felt totally confident. When he sized it up, I knew it was going in. And that’s kind of what he does.”
Norvell confided that he’d recently talked with former Zags guard Nigel Williams-Goss whose tournament advice was, “Whatever happens, no regrets.”
The Zags just dodged a big one.
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