GLENDALE, Ariz. – The games keep getting bigger. Gonzaga keeps getting better, particularly in crunch time.
The top-seeded Zags tacked up another landmark victory, holding off seventh-seeded South Carolina 77-73 Saturday in front of 77,612 at University of Phoenix Stadium, the second largest crowd in national semifinal history.
Gonzaga (37-1) celebrated its first Final Four appearance by advancing to the championship game on Monday where the Bulldogs will face No. 1-seeded North Carolina, which defeated Oregon 77-76.
“Just ecstatic to still be playing,” coach Mark Few said. “And to be playing in the last game of the year is crazy cool.”
To get there, Gonzaga needed to withstand a South Carolina comeback that turned GU’s 65-51 lead into a 67-65 deficit with just over seven minutes remaining.
Enter Zach Collins, Przemek Karnowski and Nigel Williams-Goss. The trio led the Zags most of the game and even more so in the tense, closing minutes.
Gonzaga rattled off a 7-0 run to jump back in front 72-67. Collins started it with a 3-pointer and Karnowski, who left the game late in the first half after being poked in the eye, made the next two baskets on feeds from Williams-Goss and Collins.
“Our maturity stood out,” said senior guard Jordan Mathews, who made four 3-pointers and scored 12 points. “They’re in the Final Four for a reason. They were down at halftime in three of their four NCAA Tournament games. We knew they were going to make a run. It was just a matter of weathering the storm and playing to the end.”
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In the final moments, the Gamecocks (26-11) pulled within two on a Chris Silva free throw. A Collins’ free throw restored the lead to three.
South Carolina set up for a potential tying 3-pointer but the Zags didn’t give the Gamecocks the chance. Josh Perkins fouled with 3.5 seconds left before they could get a shot off.
“I don’t know what to tell you, man, it’s awesome,” said Karnowski, who finished with 13 points and five rebounds. “We’ll be playing in the last game of the college season and we’ve never had a chance to do that. It’s just awesome for our program.”
Williams-Goss poured in 23 points, equaling his tournament high, on 9-of-16 shooting. He added six assists and five rebounds. Collins contributed 14 points, 13 rebounds and six blocked shots.
The Zags were efficient, shooting 48 percent and connecting on nine 3-pointers, but it was at the other end where Gonzaga did its best work.
The Zags shut down Thornwell, holding the tournament’s leading scorer (25.8 points per game) to just 15 points. Mathews, Williams-Goss, Silas Melson and Johnathan Williams all took turns defending the 6-foot-5 wing. Thornwell made just 4 of 12 shots.
“They just crowd the paint,” Thornwell said. “They forced me to pass it out on my drives and (they) just protected the rim really well.”
By doing so, the Zags put themselves 40 minutes from a national championship.
“You have 37 wins in a season, that’s just unbelievable,” Williams-Goss said. “We have a chance to play for it all. And we’re here to win it.”
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