PHOENIX – For a brief moment Thursday night, it looked as if Dan Monson’s Gonzaga Bulldogs would be stepping carefully around their hotel rooms this morning, packing bags and trying to avoid scattered shards from their shattered glass slipper.
That was before Casey Calvary made the leap of his life, over a couple of Florida defenders, and tipped in the basket that gave 10th-seeded Gonzaga a knee-weakening 73-72 upset victory over sixth-seeded Florida in a West Regional semifinal of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
So today, another page will be added to the Cinderella yarn that Monson and his players want no one to write. And instead of scrambling to book flights back to Spokane, the Bulldogs (28-6) will be working on a game plan for Saturday’s 12:40 p.m. (PST) regional final against top-seeded and third-ranked Connecticut (31-2), which tripped Iowa 78-68 in Thursday’s other semifinal.
“We’re 40 minutes from the Final Four,” Monson said, almost matter-of-factly just a few minutes after Calvary had set off a wild celebration of blue shirts that turned the America West Arena court into a mosh pit.
“The feeling is just indescribable,” added Calvary, who tipped back a Quentin Hall miss with 4 seconds left to give GU the final say in this ragged, but extremely intense and entertaining, tussle with the tough-luck Gators (22-9). “This is what most of us have been dreaming about since we were little.”
And it took a certain set of circumstances – some unlikely, some not – to let the dream live another day.
With 15 seconds left, GU looked finished.
Florida was up 72-71 and had the ball out of bounds under the Bulldogs’ basket. But after taking the in-bounds pass, the Gators’ Brent Wright dragged his foot in the face of pressure from Hall and GU capitalized on the travel call.
The Bulldogs inbounded under their own basket, but the play Monson had drawn up in the preceding timeout was rendered useless when the Gators tipped Richie Frahm’s lazy pass out of bounds with 10 seconds remaining.
From there, Hall improvised, splitting a pair of defenders, to launch a leaning 15-footer that caught a lot of iron, but bounced out – into Calvary’s waiting hands.
“There were three or four guys in front of me, but they were all down here,” Calvary said, lowering his hands below his waist. “I felt guys hitting me and pulling at my arms, but I managed to get both hands on the ball.
“The tip felt great. I thought it was going in.”
The ball hit the backboard and bounced twice on the rim before dropping through. And when Florida’s Eddie Shannon, after dribbling nearly the length of the court, missed an off-balance 16-footer at the buzzer, the Bulldogs were part of the Elite Eight.
“This is awesome,” said Frahm, who scored 14 of his game-high 17 points in the second half and knocked down three consecutive 3-pointers – one of the likely circumstances – to stop a Gators run and give GU a 67-64 lead with just more than 3 minutes left. “We are lucky and fortunate.”
“We were blessed today,” added Matt Santangelo, who finished with 11 points, seven assists and only three turnovers against Florida’s full-court defensive pressure. “It was not a pretty game, but we showed our character and the heart of our team.
“It just took that one great play at the end to push us over the top. We are going to savor it and come in and play on Saturday.”
Despite Florida’s disruptive pressing tactics, the Bulldogs controlled the game most of the way. They carved out a 26-13 lead less than 13 minutes in, but gave all but a point of it back by halftime.
Florida led less than 3 minutes, but was in position to win in the final minutes, thanks to the clutch shooting of Greg Stolt, who finished with a team-high 16 points. The 6-foot-9 senior, one of several Gators front-liners who can shoot it from outside, hit a huge 3-pointer with the shot clock running down to give Florida a 59-58 lead with 6:47 left. He added another from the right wing to give the Gators their final points and a 72-69 lead with 45 ticks remaining.
Frahm passed up a 3 to feed Jeremy Eaton for an easy inside basket to get the Zags to within 72-71, setting up Wright’s travel and Calvary’s winning tip.
“I thought it was a war of wills the whole game,” said Monson, who now gets to dodge questions about his rosy coaching future for at least another couple days. “There were times when they dictated the tempo and we couldn’t ever get into a flow.
“Their system is very difficult to get a rhythm against, and I thought our defense disrupted their offensive system. That’s why it came down to the last shot.”
Florida coach Billy Donovan said he was trying to call his last timeout prior to Shannon’s sprint down the court to lauch his misguided buzzer-beater.
“But we probably got as good a shot as you could’ve in that situation,” he added. “I’ve got to give Gonzaga credit. They’re a very good basketball team and they certainly proved it here against us.”
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