SALT LAKE CITY – It was as close to a rough patch as Gonzaga experienced during its 32-1 march to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The Zags dropped their regular-season finale at home to BYU, ending their 29-game winning streak. In the quarterfinals of the WCC Tournament, Gonzaga led ninth-seeded Pacific just 27-25 at halftime before finding the gas pedal in the second half.
Gonzaga looked like the November-to-February Zags, sprinting to a 39-18 lead against Saint Mary’s after one of their best halves of the season. The Gaels roared back, cutting the Zags’ lead to five, but Gonzaga responded emphatically for a convincing 74-56 win.
The national perception was essentially ho-hum, another Gonzaga tournament championship, No. 15 in the last 20 years. But it might be a bigger deal than it appears.
“I think we’re better prepared, especially after that Saint Mary’s game,” senior center Przemek Karnowski said. “I liked how we got our mojo back.”
The numbers show Gonzaga’s NCAA Tournament success usually correlates with its performance in the conference tournament. That makes sense for obvious reasons, but the significant difference between being WCC champs and runners-up bodes well for the current Zags, who open the NCAA Tournament against South Dakota State on Thursday in Salt Lake City.
From the 1999 squad’s improbable run to the Elite Eight through last week in Las Vegas, the Zags have won 15 conference tournaments. In those seasons, the Zags have a 21-14 NCAA Tournament record with two Elite Eights and five Sweet 16s for a total of seven trips to the second weekend. They’ve made two first-round exits.
The Zags lost in the WCC championship game in 2003, 2008, 2010 and 2012. Their NCAA record in those years was just 3-4 with one first-round loss in 2008, the last time GU failed to win its opener.
The Zags have never made it past the round of 32 after failing to win the conference tournament.
“I didn’t know that,” assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said. “But after winning the WCC Tournament, you feel pretty good about yourself.”
In the four runner-up seasons, Gonzaga was seeded 7, 8, 7 and 9. The Zags’ Elite Eights came in 2015 as a 2 seed and 1999 as a 10. Their Sweet 16s: an 11 seed in 2016, 4 in 2009, 3 in 2006, 12 in 2001 and 10 in 2000.
Gonzaga locked up the top seed in the West Region by bouncing back from the BYU setback and winning the conference tournament.
“I said before the selection show I didn’t really care if we were a 1 or a 2 or whatever seed we were,” guard Nigel Williams-Goss said. “I just wanted to be in the West, obviously less travel and having more fans.
“For me, whether it was validation or not, we were going to have to play whether we got a 1 or a 2 seed.”
But capturing the title had two tangible benefits: One, the Zags performed better when tested compared to the BYU contest and handling the Gaels for a third time provided a momentum boost.
On the court, the Zags didn’t shoot well from distance in the first two tourney games but made 4 of 7 3-pointers versus Saint Mary’s. Gonzaga also buried free throws – 53 of 65 in three games – after struggling in that department against BYU.
“We definitely got some good momentum,” Williams-Goss said. “I think our best game down in Las Vegas was the championhip game versus Saint Mary’s. We’re definitely going to try to ride that wave. I know we’ll be ready for Thursday.”
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