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Gonzaga Basketball

‘Snacks’ clutch 3 helped Gonzaga continue first-round streak that has reached 13 years

Zach Norvell Jr. smiles as he helps coach his former team during Gonzaga’s practice Thursday at Ball Arena in Denver.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

DENVER – Zach ‘Snacks’ Norvell Jr. had an uncanny ability to flip the switch during his Gonzaga career, shrugging off a cold stretch or half and confidently delivering a clutch shot.

One of Norvell’s biggest buckets is a primary reason Gonzaga has a 13-year winning streak – and counting – in NCAA Tournament openers, second only to Kansas, which captured its 16th in row by defeating Howard on Thursday.

The Zags will try to extend their streak to 14 against Grand Canyon on Friday at Ball Arena.

Gonzaga has had a couple of close calls in March Madness openers since Steph Curry scored 40 points to lead Davidson past GU 82-76 in a 2008 first-round contest.

The closest was against 13th-seeded UNC Greensboro in 2018 in Boise. The Spartans and Zags were tied at 64 when Norvell, now a GU student assistant, coolly drilled a 3-pointer with 20.8 seconds remaining.

“We were coming down looking for a play to get us going,” Norvell said Thursday prior to the Zags’ shootaround. “Josh Perkins called a play for me to pop out and get a ball screen, and I just jabbed at the screen and got a good look at the basket and knocked it down.”

Norvell had been 1 of 7 on 3s before hitting the deciding shot. Gonzaga held on 68-64.

“We didn’t have a lot of negative guys, everybody was kind of uplifting and outgoing,” Norvell said of his ability to shake off cold-shooting stretches. “It was kind of cool to be around the guys. When it wasn’t going well, we always had good energy and positive vibes in the locker room.”

Norvell scored 28 points as the Zags defeated Ohio State two days later. GU lost Florida State in the Sweet 16.

The other close call was in 2013 when Gonzaga, seeded No. 1 for the first time, was pushed to the buzzer by 16th-seeded Southern before prevailing 64-58 in Salt Lake City.

Gonzaga broke a tie late behind a Kevin Pangos’ jumper and step-back 3-pointer, Gary Bell Jr.’s 3-pointer and two Pangos free throws to quiet a crowd that had gravitated to the underdog. Kelly Olynyk scored 17 second-half points.

“It was our first No. 1 seed, and we probably felt a little bit of pressure as a team and a program,” Zags assistant coach Brian Michaelson said. “We were used to being the underdogs and having the crowd get behind us and that was the first time where it went the other way.

“ ‘Kev’ made some big plays late, and Kelly made some big plays late, but Southern did a great job and really slowed us down. It turned into a real battle. There were some tense times for sure.”

The Zags lost to Wichita State in the round of 32.