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John Blanchette: Gonzaga’s grit on full display in hard-fought Sweet 16 win over Florida State

UPDATED: Thu., March 28, 2019, 11:11 p.m.

ANAHEIM, Calif. – There’s one in every run.

Sometimes it’s the game that ends your run. Sometimes it’s the one that sustains it. Sometimes it’s the one that defines it.

The toughness game. The grit game. The do-unto-them-before-they-do-unto-you game.

Yes, even the No. 1 seeds have to be tough. What, you think the top line gives a team a bye to the Final Four?

Gonzaga has passed enough of those tests over the years, and certainly won enough games in the NCAA Tournament – though never enough to satisfy the enduring horde of smartphone jockeys that can’t offer even a grudging nod to the Bulldogs’ legitimacy because their mailing address isn’t Tobacco Road.

“Even the players out there today were saying it,” Gonzaga guard Josh Perkins said. “We’ll have to deal with it forever.”

But on Thursday, it was the Florida State Seminoles dealing with their season coming to an end in the Sweet 16, absorbing a 72-58 thumping that for the Zags was part revenge, part déjà vu.

The revenge part you know: The ’Noles kicked Gonzaga to the curb in this very round a year ago. If you couldn’t get one of the Bulldogs to admit before Thursday’s game that this hangover of shame was prominent in their thinking, you simply had to go to the next locker to get another Zag to confirm it.

The déjà vu? That required a slightly longer memory.

“When we saw this one coming,” Bulldogs assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said, “the first thing we said was, ‘West Virginia.’ ”

West Virginia. Gonzaga’s opponent in the 2017 MMA, er, NCAA Sweet 16. Rear chokeholds and hammer fists. A work of art straight out of Picasso’s Bruise Period.

The comparison was apt enough, with the difference being that Florida State was also bigger than Gonzaga at every position, including a 7-foot-4 giant ready to windmill shots into the seats, and boasted depth down to an 11th man – well, on paper.

We weren’t going to be able to play our usual free-flowing style,” Lloyd explained. “It was going to be hard to connect passes. And guys were going to have to make individual plays and have toughness, and we were going to have to be the ones initiating contact.”

Done, done and done.

There was Rui Hachimura, dusting himself off from easily his poorest game of the season last Saturday against Baylor and responding with 17 points. Brandon Clarke, who buried the Bears with 36 points and five blocked shots, took over on the glass – the Zags forging a remarkable 45-36 edge in an area Lloyd has acknowledged as “our Achilles’ heel.” Perkins was his underappreciated self at the point – logging 36-plus minutes under steady duress and late-game cramps.

And Zach Norvell Jr., as usual, hit the big shot – a nervy, late-clock 3-pointer with 3 minutes to play after the Noles had narrowed the margin to four points.

Hey, credit coach Mark Few for a tough call, too.

With a little over 6 minutes to go, he ran Killian Tillie into the game for a three-bigs lineup with Perkins and Norvell at guard – a lineup the Zags had used for all of seven possessions this season.

It was inspired. The Seminoles didn’t get another offensive rebound until the game was decided, and it put deterring size against FSU’s Trent Forrest, who had been working the Zags mercilessly on the bounce.

“We maybe needed some randomness,” Lloyd said.

But mostly, the Zags needed genuine fearlessness.

“And that’s pretty cool, actually,” Norvell said. “It brings out more of the competitive nature in you, knowing they want to bully you.”

The Seminoles did exactly that last year, the Zags on their heels even before tipoff when it became known that Tillie wouldn’t be able to go because of a hip pointer – something Lloyd called a “built-in excuse.” This year it was the Seminoles missing starting forward Phil Cofer, out with a foot injury even before his father’s funeral this week took him away from the team. Backup guard David Nichols was also sidelined, and PJ Savoy missed some time in the second half before returning. Maybe that allowed the Zags to devote more attention to making Terance Mann disappear, or maybe the ’Noles had their own built-in excuse.

Sometimes you just have to tough it out.

The Zags didn’t in this circumstance last year. Two years ago – both against West Virginia and two rounds later against South Carolina – they did. Really, they’ve done it for a long time – the 1999 win over Stanford maybe setting the tone.

“It’s just not true that Gonzaga isn’t tough,” Perkins said. “I think it shows in our play. They can say what they want to say, but at the end of the day, we’re the ones still playing.”

Into the Elite Eight, for the third time in five years. Forty minutes from the Final Four.

Forty tough minutes.

Follow along with the Zags

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