ANAHEIM, Calif. – They gathered one last time as a team in the locker room at the Honda Center.
Gonzaga head coach Mark Few knew there was nothing he could say that would mend his players’ broken hearts or slow down their tears after Saturday’s 75-69 loss to Texas Tech.
“As I explained to them, this emotion wouldn’t be running like this if we didn’t care and there wasn’t an incredible amount of love in the program,” Few said. “From player to player, to coaches to players, to staff members to trainers, and it was real.
“Those are powerful, big moments that most people don’t get to experience. I told them just when you think it’s impossible to set higher standards at Gonzaga, these dudes roll in and did it. I thanked them, and told them every day will get a little bit better.”
More in the final Gonzaga rewind of the 2019 season.
Painful loss, prideful season
It was arguably the most emotional locker room scene following a season-ending loss in the program’s 21 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. That includes 2017, when the Zags led North Carolina in the title game with less than 2 minutes remaining, and the 2005-06 team, which blew a sizable second-half lead in a bitter Sweet 16 loss to UCLA.
The outpouring of emotion was the product of a tight-knit team that believed it was going to win it all.
“We truly played for each other and wanted to win for each other,” senior point guard Josh Perkins said. “Definitely going to feel it for a while.”
The loss was still too fresh in their minds to try to put the 33-4 season into perspective.
“I just love this team, from my heart,” junior forward Rui Hachimura said. “We fought hard this year. We lost the game, but I believe we’re the best team in the country.”
“It’s hard to think about it right now,” sophomore wing Zach Norvell Jr. said. “We’re always going to be a family. These guys are going to be my brothers. I haven’t really been able to look back at what we’ve done, but it was great. It was cool.”
It was a battle between Gonzaga’s top-ranked offense and Texas Tech’s No. 1-rated defense, but the subplot was the scrap for tempo control.
The Zags, looking to run whenever they had an opportunity, had the pace to their liking in the first half. Gonzaga scored 11 points in transition and produced a healthy blend of paint points (12), 3-pointers (four) and free throws (eight).
Texas Tech reeled in the pace in the second half, and the Zags struggled to score in the half court. The turning point came when the Zags managed just three points – a Brandon Clarke dunk and a Hachimura free throw – over a 6-minute, 30-second span. The Red Raiders didn’t exactly light it up during that stretch, but they moved in front 56-53.
Gonzaga suffered through another near 3-minute drought before Clarke’s free throws cut Texas Tech’s lead to 63-60 with 2:10 remaining.
“I think Gonzaga made us play like that,” Texas Tech’s Brandone Francis said. “I feel like the second half, we slowed the pace down a little bit and played to our game.”
“We don’t want to play slow,” guard Matt Mooney added, “but we want to control the tempo and take shots and play March basketball. In the second half, we were able to do that.”
Gonzaga’s defense was the driving force in three NCAA Tournament wins. The defense was far from perfect Saturday, but it gave the Zags a chance.
The defense kept Gonzaga close during the offense’s second-half dry spells. The Red Raiders had three turnovers in the final 41 seconds, two that allowed Gonzaga to cut their lead to 69-67.
“We thought we would win the entire time until the (technical foul with 11 seconds left),” Perkins said. “Our defense wasn’t the issue at all.”
Texas Tech standout guard Jarrett Culver had the full attention of Gonzaga’s defense. He scored 19 points, but made just 5 of 19 shots, including 2 of 8 on 3s. He hit 7 of 8 free throws.
Mooney, who had 17 points and five assists, and Davide Moretti, who scored 12 points and made two key 3-pointers, helped the Red Raiders survive Culver’s off night.
“They played great defense on me. I didn’t play my best game, but we won, so we can’t be mad,” Culver said. “Those two made a lot of big plays. It doesn’t surprise us, because they put in the work to make those plays.”
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