Space limitations prevent a comprehensive list of the gotta-have-it plays Gonzaga made in its first two NCAA Tournament wins.
The gist is the Zags keep making them, over and over. It dates back to a steady dose of tests from the second half of the West Coast Conference season that, at the time, seemed like potential red flags, but turned out to be important trial runs.
Fourth-seeded Gonzaga (32-4) was nearly sent home in Thursday’s 68-64 win over UNC Greensboro. Instead, the Zags scored the last six points with Zach Norvell’s 3-pointer ranking near the top of the program’s all-time clutch tournament buckets and Josh Perkins’ game-tying jumper somewhere down the list.
The Zags blew a 15-point lead and trailed 67-62 with six minutes left against Ohio State on Saturday. Norvell, Perkins, Rui Hachimura and Killian Tillie directed an 11-0 run that grew into a decisive 20-5 burst in Gonzaga’s 16th consecutive win.
“We’re just getting more and more comfortable when adversity hits,” said Perkins, who has been rock solid for the better part of two months. “Especially in March, adversity is going to hit. For us to respond two times in a row, the WCC got us prepared for it.
“I stayed composed, and I think my composure rubbed off on the team. We made our free throws when it mattered (Saturday) and we got stops.”
The Zags have not only learned how to win, it seems they’ve forgotten how to lose. It wasn’t always this way. The Zags had mixed results at the PK80 Invitational in Portland, falling in a double-overtime classic to Florida, then recovering from a late pratfall against Texas to win in overtime.
They didn’t have the finishing touch in narrow losses to San Diego State in December and Saint Mary’s in January, but they’ve been solid since in the clutch.
“Everybody can score the ball,” Tillie said. “Zach made some crazy shots (Saturday). It was great to have some big buckets at the end. He doesn’t care, he just shoots the ball and it goes in.”
Norvell has been the ringleader in the tournament and numerous times in the regular season.
“He’s just a fiery guy with some swag from Chicago, and we need that,” coach Mark Few said. “You add in the fact that he’s right there with probably the most clutch players I’ve coached, going back to Dan Dickau or Adam Morrison. The shot before the 3 (in GU’s late run against Ohio State) missed by 8 feet, and to come back and swish the next one … that’s like me shanking two into the water and then hitting a hole-in-one, which doesn’t happen.”
Perkins hasn’t made a hole-in-one, but his nifty feed to Tillie for a three-point play that gave GU the lead for good probably felt like an eagle.
“Since we dropped that game to Saint Mary’s, he’s come eons from where he was as far as understanding winning plays,” Few said. “That’s been as big a key for this run we’ve been on.”
Gonzaga’s body language has been nearly as impressive as its late-game execution. Perkins flashed a “we’re good” glance at Few after his game-tying jumper versus UNC Greensboro.
It was Hachimura’s turn against the Buckeyes. Hachimura, an 84 percent free-throw shooter through 34 games, has made just 50 percent in the tournament, but he hit his last five Saturday in the final 1:42.
Hachimura later scolded himself – “First of all, I have to make free throws” – but Perkins was singing his praises.
“When guys missed, we stuck together,” Perkins said. “That’s when you saw Rui give a little giggle at the line, like, ‘Hey, I’m going to make it when it matters.’ And he did.”
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