BOISE – One shining moment deserves another.
Zach Norvell Jr. is two for two in that department, and his NCAA Tournament career is all of two games old.
The redshirt freshman wing had company in sophomore forward Rui Hachimura, who made huge plays at both ends of the floor as the fourth-seeded Zags outplayed No. 5 Ohio State in crunch time.
Two nights after burying a late 3-pointer to sink UNC Greensboro, Norvell was back at it with a season-high 28 points as the Zags rallied for a 90-84 victory Saturday in front of 11,686 at Taco Bell Arena to reach the Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive season.
“Crazy, crazy to see him play like that,” forward Killian Tillie said of Norvell. “It’s cool when you have somebody like that on your team. Just pass the ball to him and win games.”
It wasn’t quite that simple, but Norvell did supply a ridiculous stat line. He made 6 of 11 3s, 6 of 8 free throws on a night when the Zags misfired until the closing minutes, a season-high 12 rebounds, four assists and two steals.
“Getting 12 rebounds is big for me,” Norvell said. Cracked head coach Mark Few, seated nearby: “He goes a month sometimes without getting a rebound.”
Hachimura added a career-best 25 points and he couldn’t have timed his first 3-pointer since late November any better. His dagger 3 as the shot clock was about to expire capped an 11-0 run that put Gonzaga up 73-67 with 3:40 left.
“Not really,” smiled Hachimura, when asked if he was comfortable launching the shot.
All that pre-game talk about Ohio State (25-9) being much improved from an 86-59 loss administered by GU at the PK80 in November seemed like hot air for the first 20 minutes.
Gonzaga (32-4), which will meet the winner of Sunday’s No. 1 Xavier/No. 9 Florida State game on Thursday in Los Angeles, breezed to a 15-0 lead with Norvell knocking down consecutive 3-pointers and Hachimura adding seven points in three minutes.
The Zags hit some turbulence as forwards Hachimura, Tillie and Johnathan Williams each picked up two fouls. That forced GU to use unusual combinations on the floor and OSU forward Keita Bates-Diop took advantage, scoring 14 first-half points and adding a nice assist when the Zags tried a double-team.
The Buckeyes started chipping away but the Zags still led 44-33 lead at half, reminiscent of Gonzaga’s 44-31 advantage at intermission in the PK80.
OSU dominated the first 14 minutes of the second half behind Bates-Diop, who finished with 28 points, and guards C.J. Jackson and Kam Williams, who combined for 26 second-half points.
There was good stuff on the court when whistles weren’t echoing off the arena walls. There were curious calls throughout, but the end result was both teams were without key players for long stretches. OSU capitalized, making 13 of 16 free throws to GU’s 19 of 31.
The Buckeyes led 67-62 just inside the 6-minute mark when the Zags flipped the momentum.
As usual, Norvell was in the middle of it.
“It looked like a step-back, corner 3 that was really well defended by Andre Wesson,” Buckeyes coach Chris Holtmann said. “That was a crushing blow.”
Crushing blow No. 1, as it turned out. Tillie’s three-point play and a Norvell-assisted Josh Perkins layup kept the run going and Hachimura ended it with a clutch 3-pointer, breaking a personal 0-for-16 stretch.
Norvell added another 3, Hachimura swatted Bates-Diop’s layup attempt – one of his four rejections – and the Zags finally started finding the mark at the free-throw line to close out the Buckeyes.
“Just the fight that we always have,” Norvell said. “When they went on the run, any other team in the country puts their head down and thinks it was over, but nobody in the huddle felt like we were going to lose. That’s big. We have that positive energy coming in, even off a bad stretch.”
Energy, leadership, game-changing buckets: Norvell’s bringing all of it.
“He’s got that persona that we really need in our program, quite frankly,” Few said. “We have an overabundance of introverts, and that’s one thing he’s not. I call him our spiritual leader. He gets us going every practice, even the ones they don’t want to be at.”
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