GLENDALE, Ariz. – They could have made it easy. They made it hard.
But they made it.
And then they made jokes about it.
Because when you’ve played your way into the national championship game, it is to laugh – at all the nimrods who continue to find fault (“They still haven’t played anybody!” screams Twitter), at the ugly shots that took lucky bounces and sometimes just at each other.
As when Przemek Karnowski was apprised that his 7-foot freshman Gonzaga sidekick, Zach Collins, had blocked six shots on the biggest stage in college basketball.
“You know, my career high is seven,” the big man teased, “but six is still good.”
And, finally, they laughed about being in the position to win it all, and fate’s crazy impulses.
“But it’s no joke,” guard Silas Melson said. “We’re no joke.”
Nope. And they’re not just 40 minutes from history, but a kind of immortality.
That’s right. Gonzaga.
Sure, the Zags are a long way from the wild, innocent, easy-street days of being those bracket-busting Cinderellas – the days of Matt and Q and Casey and what’s-a-Zag. Since then, they have been No. 1, they have been an NCAA Tournament perennial, they have become good enough to be reviled – and that’s when you know you’ve made it.
But there wasn’t one of the old Bulldogs players – and dozens poured into town this weekend – who settled into his seat behind the GU bench at University of Phoenix Stadium and didn’t look around and say, “Incredible,” before tipoff.
And that was just at being in the Final Four.
Once the Zags rediscovered the better angels of their competitive selves in the last 7 minutes and outlasted South Carolina 77-73, the blood relatives repaired to find a Red Stripe and Roget’s and come up with something better for Monday night.
The current Bulldogs feel their pride, but don’t have time – and maybe not the inclination – to share their wonder.
Not with North Carolina – another No. 1 seed – awaiting them in the championship and not with two more days of insults to bank. Like the one that filtered back to them on Friday when the Gamecocks’ Sindarius Thornwell decided the Zags “are really nervous right now.”
“You know, we just heard everything this year,” guard Nigel Williams-Goss said. “We’ve heard (about) the conference, we’ve heard we haven’t played tight games, that we’re not tough. We’ve heard everything.”
Now, truth be told, Thornwell’s assessment was merely 24 hours premature and slightly misdirected. It was the Zag fans reaching for their Zantac when the Gamecocks reeled off 16 straight points in the second half to erase a 14-point lead.
The Bulldogs’ themselves were remarkably stoic.
“Just the simple facts – it’s the Final Four,” Melson said. “You have to have the will, the maturity to bounce back from runs like that.”
And, OK, luck.
No other way to explain the 3-pointer Collins left on the flange like a lob wedge on a rain-soaked green and watched roll in.
“Very ugly,” Collins said. “Don’t know how it went in.”
Then Karnowski got a roaring dunk off a Williams-Goss feed, and then collected a pretty high-low pass from Collins. The Zags had some sweating left to do – and a well-timed foul to commit with 3.5 seconds left – but they would never trail again.
Even in Gonzaga’s 38th game, Collins found a way to be a revelation – a 14-13 double-double to go with those six blocks.
“I had a couple of rough games in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight,” Collins confessed, “and I knew last night when I went to bed, ‘I have to make an impact and I have to be the player I know I am.’ ”
Or as assistant coach Tommy Lloyd put it, “Zach Collins isn’t a backup. A lot of times he’s a pick-up.”
The Zags played Collins and Karnowski in tandem more than they had because they sensed an advantage against the Gamecocks’ bigs without the downside of having to switch a lot of ball screens. Meanwhile, Williams-Goss took “total control of the game for the first 30 minutes,” as South Carolina coach Frank Martin said.
So they checked the strategic box and the playmaker box, but mostly they again checked the resiliency box. As against West Virginia in the Sweet 16, they may have wasted an advantage, but they didn’t wilt.
“We were controlling the game the whole time,” Melson said. “It would suck to be crying in the locker room now, losing the game that we lost ourselves. So we had to make something happen.”
It’s what these Zags do. They make it easy, they make it hard, they make things happen.
Make time for them on Monday night. They just might make history.
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