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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

John Blanchette: Gonzaga powers past West Virginia and proves tough enough

March 23, 2017 Updated Fri., March 24, 2017 at 12:11 a.m.

Gonzaga guard Josh Perkins crashers in to West Virginia guard Daxter Miles in the second half of their NCAA Sweet Sixteen game, March 23, 2017, in San Jose. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga guard Josh Perkins crashers in to West Virginia guard Daxter Miles in the second half of their NCAA Sweet Sixteen game, March 23, 2017, in San Jose. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

SAN JOSE, Calif. – Tough enough?

Here’s how tough:

Thirty-seven seconds to play. The ball would be in the hands of Jevon Carter, the only West Virginia player all night with a notion of how to score – and score he had, most of the time over Nigel Williams-Goss, who was losing badly on points and looking a lot like Rocky imploring his trainer, “Cut me, Mick.”

So it was Silas Melson who’d been assigned to check Carter with the Mountaineers needing three to tie.

Williams-Goss had other ideas.

“Nah, move,” he told Melson. “I’m going to take him.”

Tough enough?

Jordan Mathews, tagged with his fourth foul – didn’t every player start this game with four fouls? – and anchored to the Gonzaga bench for nearly five minutes, checks in with 68 seconds to play. In a previous timeout, he’d told Williams-Goss, “When I come in, if I’m open find me. I’m going to knock it down.”

He hadn’t taken a shot in nearly 15 minutes of game time, probably 40 in real time. Nine seconds after he left the bench, he let fly.

Tough enough?

How tough do you have to be to sumo wrestle a stump grinder? To slow dance with gunnysack of glass shards? To endure the baleful glare of Bob Huggins and his remorseless ninjas and stare right back, and not just as survivors?

To stay nothing of staring down history, cynics and silly narratives.

And now for a third time in their basketball history, the Gonzaga Bulldogs get to call themselves elite.

When the gauze bandages come off and the welts heal, the Bulldogs’ 61-58 victory over West Virginia in Saturday’s NCAA Sweet 16 slugfest will be regarded as the rough-hewn art it was – like chainsaw sculpture.

But it was pretty to the Zags – a bruise in the shape of the Mona Lisa.

And not just because it put them 40 minutes from history.

“It would be phenomenal to get these guys, this team that I love deeply, the experience to go to a Final Four,” said coach Mark Few.

Only Xavier – a No. 11 seed but with bark as hard as Gonzaga’s going by the Musketeers’ 73-71 upset of Arizona – stands in the way on Saturday afternoon.

The Zags had until the final horn of that second game to savor what they’d done Thursday night, the winning shot by Mathews, the dogged D of Williams-Goss.

Deadline celebrations are the order of March.

And regrets that last months.

“Hard,” Huggins lamented. “But you tell me another team in the country who can shoot 26 percent from the field against a No. 1 seed, 21 percent from 3 and still could have – should have – won the game.”

Should have? Huggs’ pullover must have bloused up in his field of vision at the end there.

But there was a lot going on, too – including some unsung things like ball screen defense by big men Johnathan Williams and Zach Collins in those last 37 seconds, and a rare, wicked block by Josh Perkins that led to the breakout and Mathews’ winning shot.

“It’s an inside joke in the locker room that I always take big whiffs on blocks,” said Perkins.

It was no joke this time.

Nor was Williams-Goss’ defense after Carter had worked him for most of his 21 points, although the nervy 3-pointer that put West Virginia up 58-55 with 1:45 remaining had come over Melson’s outstretched arm. For 36 of those 37 seconds, the ball was in Carter’s hands – and Williams-Goss in his face.

“It takes big nuts,” Melson said, “to step up and say, ‘Hey, I’m locking this dude up the last 30 seconds who just hit a big-time 3 and has been balling all game.’ ”

That pride overcame a lot of imperfections. The Zags handled West Virginia’s backcourt pressure well enough, but turnovers in the half court led to 24 points. They surrendered 19 points on 20 offensive rebounds – the Mountaineers’ second-best skill. And, yeah, they surrendered a second-half lead they could have stretched to double digits.

And then they overcame – in a manner reminiscent of the program’s first Sweet 16 win 18 years ago.

“You know, it was more that you heard about how tough they were,” Williams-Goss said about West Virginia. “So it’s satisfying. A lot of people from the outside wondered how good is Gonzaga, how tough is Gonzaga. And we just went up against the supposed bad boys and pulled out a victory.”

How tough?

“Really tough,” said Melson. “Mentally. Physically. It’s not just rah-rah stuff. We missed a lot of chances. Chipping layups left and right. Sixteen turnovers. But a tough team isn’t going to hang their head. A tough team is going to say, ‘Next play.’ ”

Next play comes on Saturday. Forty minutes to Phoenix.

Tough enough?

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