PORTLAND – Man, if you weren’t watching the Gonzaga-Memphis game Saturday, what’s your excuse?
This one was a 40-minute advertisement for the glory of college basketball, for the madness of the NCAA Tournament, and for a couple of dozen very athletic men who were willing to hover around in the space between the rim and roof for every rebound.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few always says that the NCAA Tournament is the greatest sporting event on the planet. It would be hard to argue with him after the Zags rallied from 12 points down in the second half for an 82-78 win over the No. 9-seeded Tigers.
It had drama, tension, a big deficit and a stunning rally. It had 40 minutes of aerobatic rebounding.
It had the struggles of the protagonists, seemingly on the edge of a vastly disappointing upset. Another No. 1 seed, Baylor, lost to North Carolina earlier in the day. Could it be contagious?
It had irony, with GU winning the game at the free-throw line after again clanking most of its attempts for much of the game.
And it had a flawed hero again rising to meet the challenge when it appeared most dire. That causes the viewer to raise a point for Gonzaga opponents to consider if they have upsets on their minds. Rule No. 1, don’t tick off Drew Timme.
The Gonzaga post player has come out from halftime two straight games and tore the opponent apart. Thursday it was 22 second-half points against Georgia State. Saturday, he stunned Memphis with 11 straight points in less than 4 minutes at the start of the second half.
Timme, Mr. Second Half, finished with 21 of his 25 in the last 20 minutes.
Timme’s repertoire of interior moves again decimated the opponent’s big men. For the second straight game, Timme drew seven fouls, putting the Tigers’ most athletic big men in foul trouble.
If NBA scouts have questions how the 6-foot-10 Timme might make shots in the paint against the game’s most athletic big men, this game showed his versatility in scoring against talented bigs. He spun, he ducked, he backed in, he drove the lane, he lofted in fadeaways and he practically baby-hooked Memphis into submission.
For the latter part of the season, Few had been touting Andrew Nembhard as the best point guard in the country. Memphis would surely test that claim, with its speedy and “handsy” backcourt.
Nembhard played all 40 minutes, scored 23 points, drew six fouls and nailed 6 of 7 free throws, including four in the final, pressure-packed 22 seconds.
This was promoted as a duel between likely lottery-pick freshmen – Chet Holmgren of GU and Jalen Duren of Memphis. Foul trouble particularly limited Duren, who finished with seven points and seven rebounds.
Holmgren scored nine with nine rebounds and four blocked shots. He started the game emphatically by blocking Duren at the rim in the game’s first minute and then hit a gorgeous spinning fadeaway.
He blocked Duren again, and within the first 4 minutes, he blocked a third shot, and pounded himself on the chest by way of celebration. The suspicion is that the NBA talent scouts can’t miss Holmgren’s extraordinary skills but have questions about his slender frame and ability to battle on the block.
Playing against the athletic Tigers, Holmgren more than held his own.
During his Friday news conference, Few called the Tigers “daunting.” They certainly were, and pulled down eight offensive boards in the first half on their way to a 10-point halftime lead.
The Zags had trailed at half three times this season. They lost each of those games.
Not this game.
The Zags are on their way to their seventh straight Sweet 16, next week in San Francisco.
They may take comfort that Memphis was probably as physical as any team they’re likely to face the rest of the way.
If you don’t think the Zags know this was a big win – and could springboard them to another long run – you should have seen the normally reserved Few when the final buzzer sounded.
He turned toward the Gonzaga fans and thrust his fist into the air.
It was a rare display. But it was entirely warranted.
This was a great game, and everybody on the court and in the stands knew it.