So much for the challenge.
If anyone was going to give Gonzaga the test it has yet to see in the NCAA Tournament, it was going to be USC in the Elite Eight.
The Trojans were long. Talented. Playing well.
That wasn’t the theme for veterans Kevin Harlan and Dan Bonner who, along with sideline reporter Dana Jacobson, presented the Zags’ easy 85-66 victory Tuesday, sending them to their second Final Four.
In fact, when asked if the Bulldogs could lose before the game began, Bonner laughed.
“The answer to that question is obviously yes,” he said, then preceded to list a handful of near-impossible items the Trojans would need to complete to pull off the upset.
Give the two credit. They had it right.
What they saw …
• As Bonner and Harlan introduced themselves and tried to prepare everyone for what was ahead – as the final score indicated, even with their support of Gonzaga, they weren’t ready for what happened – they picked the most obvious statistical measures.
Gonzaga’s offense inside the arc – the Zags came in shooting 63.9% there, best in the country – against USC’s defense inside the arc – 41.5%, also the nation’s best.
They focused on Drew Timme, as well they should have, as the 6-foot-10 sophomore post is one most efficient scorers in the NCAA. But there is another reason why the Zags shoot so well from that range: their fast break. The Zags shoot a lot of transition layups.
Give Bonner credit. He caught up quickly.
As the Bulldogs (30-0) raced out to a 7-0 lead and USC (25-8) called a quick timeout, the analyst noted how quickly they change ends.
“Kevin, you cannot make mistakes against Gonzaga because,” he said, “we talked about their 2-point percentage, well, they are outstanding in transition.”
Gonzaga missed more than its usual share of point-blank shots, but it still finished 26 of 45 on its attempts inside the arc. That is 57.8 percent.
• There was one first-half possession that may have, in just a few seconds, allowed all of America see what Gonzaga viewers have seen all season. It was a play that began with defense and ended in a layup.
With 9 minutes, 21 seconds left before intermission, the Trojans’ Chevez Goodwin received a pass in the middle of the key, less than 10 feet from the hoop.
He pivoted and left the ball in the middle of his body. Not for long.
Anton Watson knocked it free and Jalen Suggs, guarding 6-foot-11 Isaiah Mobley on another of the Zags’ switches, grabbed it. He split Mobley and Goodwin and raced downcourt. So did Andrew Nembhard.
Nembhard was barely ahead of Drew Peterson, but Suggs led him perfectly with a two-handed pass and Nembhard finished. The Zags’ led 29-12.
“Kevin, people talk about Gonzaga’s offense, and well they should,” Bonner said, “but their defense has been outstanding. They’ve switched every screen out front and the Trojans can’t get anything going down the lane.”
Actually, Bonner could have stopped after “going.”
Charles Barkley didn’t.
“We talk about their offense,” he said at halftime, “but that defense is terrific.”
What we saw …
• Terror isn’t something most basketball viewers experience. But when referee Bert Smith collapsed just more than 4 minutes into the game, his head hitting the floor hard and bouncing, most probably felt it.
The possession before, Smith could be seen staggering a little on the baseline in front of the Gonzaga bench. After the Zags went down the court and scored, the camera followed. As it returned, Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd could be seen popping up, and running toward the baseline.
Smith was down.
Lloyd was to him first, but he was quickly followed by medical personnel and a stretcher. After a 5-minute break, in which Smith was treated and finally stretchered off, seemingly awake and aware, the game restarted.
William Henderson, who officiated the Oklahoma game a week ago, stepped in.
“We will try to get an update,” Harlan said, before continuing on with the action.
Gene Steratore did supply one, as did Andy Katz at halftime.
Harlan mentioned the collapse a couple of times, although no one really addressed how the view of an official collapsing behind them might have impacted the players.
• Harlan has a way with words. Understated, sure, but the veteran announcer mixes in quick phrases that tell a story without referring to the action.
My favorite, as Gonzaga worked to protect its huge lead with its usual balanced attack: “Everybody getting fingerprints on this one.”
• No one would accuse Barkley, the former NBA star and, along with Kenny Smith, Ernie Johnson and Katz, anchor TBS’ NCAA studio coverage, of spinning quick, concise phrases. But he has his way of getting to the core of things. He did it again at halftime while talking about Suggs.
“This kid, what a pass,” he marveled about the pass to Nembhard. “I could watch him play basketball every day.”
He will next year, when Suggs is doing his thing in the NBA.
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