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ACC throws another roadblock in Gonzaga’s NCAA Tournament path

UPDATED: Fri., March 23, 2018, 9:48 p.m.

Gonzaga forward Corey Kispert is hammered at the rim by Florida State guard C.J. Walker Thursday at the Staples Center. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga forward Corey Kispert is hammered at the rim by Florida State guard C.J. Walker Thursday at the Staples Center. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

The NCAA Tournament has been pretty special for Gonzaga, given that the Zags are the only program in the country to reach the last four Sweet 16s.

The Atlantic Coast Conference hasn’t been nearly as kind, applying sour conclusions to each of GU’s last four seasons.

Ninth-seeded Florida State ended No. 4 Gonzaga’s latest postseason journey with a 75-60 victory Thursday at the Staples Center. The loss dropped Gonzaga’s NCAA Tournament record to 2-6 against the ACC.

In that regard, Gonzaga, which finished 32-5, has company across college basketball. The ACC is traditionally one of the nation’s best conferences and put nine teams in the field of 68 for the second straight year. The Southeastern Conference was second this year with eight qualifiers.

“The ACC is tough and the (Seminoles) were tough,” Gonzaga freshman wing Corey Kispert said. “Big bodies, tough rebounding, hard in the paint … it was really tough getting anything going against those guys.”

The best season in Gonzaga history ended with a loss to North Carolina 71-65 in the 2017 national championship. Tenth-seeded Syracuse rallied in the closing minutes to edge No. 11 Gonzaga 63-60 in the 2016 Sweet 16. Eventual national champion Duke pulled away late to hand the Zags a 66-52 setback in the 2015 Elite Eight.

The common denominator in Gonzaga’s recent tourney losses to the ACC is its lack of scoring. GU’s point totals of 60, 65, 60 and 52 rank well less than its corresponding season averages of 83.5, 82.6, 78.9 and 78.7.

Those four ACC squads were stocked with athleticism, size and length. The Seminoles had nine blocks, eight steals and yielded just 22 paint points and five 3-pointers on Thursday.

The Zags were without forward Killian Tillie, an inside-outside threat who was sidelined with a hip injury. They didn’t have many reliable scoring options. They didn’t make FSU pay for its 22 fouls (15 of 24 free throws).

“They’re a pain in the butt to play and they keep bringing it,” Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said. “They make you uncomfortable and you have to make plays.

“Killian is our best problem-solver. He kind of makes our offense work when maybe it doesn’t make sense. Still, we gave ourselves some chances. We just couldn’t get over hump.”

FSU had a lot to do with Gonzaga’s struggles.

“They weren’t helping too much off our shooters and we weren’t putting them in situations where they had to make decisions so then all of your shots are challenged by 7-footers,” Lloyd said. “That’s a tough recipe.”

Gonzaga’s last NCAA Tournament victory against the ACC was a 67-60 decision over Florida State in the 2010 first round. The year before, GU ran into eventual national champ North Carolina in the Sweet 16 and absorbed a 98-77 loss.

“There’s no doubt every night we’re playing against a worthy opponent in our league,” said Hamilton, whose team finished 9-9 and tied for eighth in the conference. “You can play really good in the ACC and come away with a loss, and we’ve experienced that. That’s why we’re prepared to play against really outstanding teams.”

Duke in 2015 and North Carolina in 2009 and 2017 carried No. 1 seeds. Gonzaga was a four seed in 2009, a two in 2015 and a one last season. The Zags’ first NCAA Tournament appearance in 1995 ended quickly with a loss to ACC power Maryland.

“They’re a very, very good basketball team,” Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said of the Zags. “Very similar to a lot of the teams we play in the ACC.”


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