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John Blanchette: Remarkable Gonzaga program marches ‘fourth’ to another Sweet 16

UPDATED: Sat., March 17, 2018, 11:42 p.m.

BOISE – March Madness is mostly divisible by four, nice and neat: 68 teams, four regions, four TV channels, a Sweet 16, an Elite Eight, a Final Four.

Handy.

On Saturday, it was very much the algebra of Gonzaga basketball.

Maybe you could even call it fourtitude.

Sorry.

In any case, from each of the four regions, four teams make it to the second weekend of the NCAA Basketball Tournament and it is a milestone, indeed. Sometimes it’s achieved with Cinderella splendor and winning flourishes (hello, Loyola-Chicago) and sometimes it’s a ruthless blitz (looking at you, Villanova) and sometimes it’s just breeding (yes, Duke again).

Every Sweet 16 team deserves its satisfaction, but Silas Melson will tell you that what feels special is when you get there not by birthright but by fistfight.

“This Sweet 16,” Gonzaga’s senior guard said, “is even sweeter because of what a grind it was.”

Grind? Only all the way down to the gum line.

Maybe not until Rui Hachimura’s breakaway dunk with 4 – that number again – seconds left did all seem secure for the Zags in their 90-84 punch-out of Ohio State at Taco Bell Arena. But now the Bulldogs will play in their fourth straight Sweet 16, a singular accomplishment for the program – and for Melson and Josh Perkins, who have been a part of all of them.

“And we’re not done yet,” Perkins insisted.

The opponent to come Thursday in Los Angeles will be either Xavier, the West Region’s top seed, or ninth-seeded Florida State, and whichever it is had best bring a chain saw if it hopes to cut through the Zags’ hard bark.

There will be five days to talk about the virtuosity of Zach Norvell Jr. and Hachimura and how it did in the Buckeyes, and an entire offseason for OSU coach Chris Holtmann to mull how two guys who were barely bit players when his team lost to the Zags by 27 four months ago would spade the last dirt on the grave this time around.

But we’re here to talk about the number 4. Because that’s why the Zags are still alive.

Start with four stops.

The 15-0 head start the Bulldogs gave themselves from tipoff was a thing of beauty, but not meant to last in the NCAA crucible. And sure enough, with the game inching into its last 6 minutes the Buckeyes had lassoed the momentum and a 67-62 lead. And then they went empty their next four trips down the floor – including a particularly crucial turnover by their alpha, Keita Bates-Diop, when he found himself double-teamed on one wing and hurled a cross-court pass into press row.

“Stops come in a lot of ways – good rim protection, good close outs, some scouting report stuff,” assistant coach Brian Michaelson said. “The double-team was spectacular. We hadn’t done that much this season outside of the game at Saint Mary’s, and not in this game at all. We went for it at a big time of the game and it went exactly as you’d draw it up.”

After those four stops, the Zags had a 73-67 lead because of …

Four buckets.

Norvell’s corner 3. Killian Tillie’s three-point play through the hack of Jae’Sean Tate. Perkins’ back-door layup off a Norvell pass. And finally Hachimura’s clock-beating 3.

“The first one he’s made since December,” Holtmann complained.

November, actually.

“Nice to hear,” he said.

Hachimura was almost embarrassed by it.

“I don’t know how it went through,” he said. “But I had to shoot, so I just shoot it.”

Whatever luck was involved, the shot was pure and just another example of the clutch timbre this team has developed – and sometimes taken to extremes, as in making 15 of their last 17 free throws against OSU after starting the game 4 of 14.

Or maybe it was a clutch gene it had all along.

“If you asked me at the beginning of the season where we’d be,” Perkins said, “I’d have told you right where we are now.”

And that’s back in the Sweet 16, again. Four straight times.

As with other Zag streaks, it’s company they now share with the game’s royalty. In the 64-cum-68-team era of the tournament, North Carolina and Duke both had streaks of nine, Kansas and Kentucky five. But GU’s four is the longest current run, which Carolina can equal on Sunday.

GU head coach Mark Few offered that just winning any NCAA game “is the hardest thing you do.” Needing two to get to the Sweet 16 doubles the challenge. And for players like Melson and Perkins to have been a part of four is truly rare air.

“In this day and age of players leaving early,” Few said, “I don’t know how many players in college basketball can say they’ve been a part of four straight second weekends. That’s got to be some elite company.”

Clutch company. Times four.


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