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Gonzaga Basketball

Julian Strawther’s clutch 3 gives Gonzaga thrilling win over UCLA, spot in the Elite Eight

LAS VEGAS – Just another Gonzaga-UCLA classic. Just another stirring comeback by the Zags. Make that a couple of stirring comebacks by the Zags.

It would be hard to top Jalen Suggs’ banked 40-footer in overtime that led GU past UCLA in the 2021 Final Four, but the Zags might have pulled it off with an absolutely heart-pounding 79-76 victory Thursday at T-Mobile Arena.

The final few minutes were the very definition of March Madness as Gonzaga saw a 10-point lead melt away – evoking images of UCLA’s memorable 73-71 comeback victory over the Zags in 2006 – before Julian Strawther had the final say in his hometown.

The junior wing wasn’t having his finest shooting night, but that all changed when he buried a long 3-pointer from the edge of the March Madness logo to put Gonzaga on top 78-76 with 7.2 seconds left. Malachi Smith then stripped the ball away from UCLA point guard Tyger Campbell, Strawther made 1 of 2 free throws and Campbell’s 40-footer at the buzzer was off target.

GU players raced onto the court to celebrate while the Bruins were stunned, again, by another game-deciding 3-pointer by the Zags. A few minutes later, Strawther came bounding down the tunnel toward the locker room, hollering, “Let’s go!” Drew Timme, who authored a 36-point masterpiece, followed a few seconds later with a more colorful (and unprintable) description.

“The play was a little dribble hand-off action, see if we could get their defense on their heels a bit,” said Strawther, who finished with 16 points on 5-of-15 shooting from the floor. “And initially when coach (Mark Few) drew it, (he wanted Strawther to) just search a little bit, maybe go downhill. And I kind of just asked him, like, ‘Can I shoot it? If no one steps up on me, do you want me to shoot it?’ And he was like, ‘Absolutely.’ And then I shot it.”

Few expanded on the play call.

“I’m telling you, he’s made that shot multiple times for us this year,” Few said. “You look back at the BYU game, he had a very deep 3, a dagger 3 like that. We practice that play. That’s (Villanova coach) Jay Wright’s play that he used in the Villanova-North Carolina championship game. That’s what we call it. He makes it all the time.

“When (Strawther) asked me … I just said, ‘Yeah, make it.’ But if he was closely guarded I wanted him going downhill to get to his floater, which he’s been great at all year.”

Gonzaga (31-5) advances to face fourth-seeded Connecticut on Saturday for a spot in the Final Four. Tip time will be approximately 5:49 p.m. The Zags and Huskies met in the Elite Eight in 1999 with UConn digging out a 67-62 win en route to the national championship.

Led by do-it-all forward Timme, another clutch effort off the bench by Smith and a strong defensive effort in the final 20 minutes, third-seeded Gonzaga rallied past No. 2 UCLA in the second half.

Timme kept the Zags close in the first half, when Gonzaga was plagued by turnovers and couldn’t contain UCLA’s Campbell, Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Amari Bailey.

Timme kept the throttle down in the second half as the Zags erased a 54-42 deficit. The senior forward finished with 36 points, 13 rebounds and four assists. He became the first player in NCAA Tournament history with 10 games with at least 20 points. He matched Brandon Clarke for the program’s single-game scoring record in a March Madness game.

Gonzaga, which trailed TCU by 10 in the first half before rallying for an 84-81 win Sunday, turned a 59-52 deficit into a 72-62 lead with 2:39 remaining on Smith’s 3-pointer.

“We just got hit in the mouth, and we just had to battle and fight,” Timme said. “And in the first half the ball just happened to be bouncing friendly to me. And in the second half, Malachi really stepped up, Julian stepped up. ’Ton (Anton Watson) was playing huge defense. We just rallied. I think that’s the story of this year.”

GU gave the ball away nine times in the opening half, leading to UCLA’s 15-2 edge in points off turnovers. In a related development, Gonzaga trailed by 13 at halftime as Campbell, Jaquez and Bailey combined for 38 points.

The Zags took better care of the ball in the final 20 minutes, slowed down the Bruins’ threesome – UCLA went 11 minutes, 20 seconds between field goals – and dominated the glass. GU had 14 offensive rebounds, leading to 18 second-chance points in the closing half.

UCLA still got off the canvas behind several Jaquez baskets, several missed free throws by GU and Bailey’s clutch 3-pointer that gave the Bruins a 76-75 edge with 14 seconds left, setting the stage for Strawther.

“It’s moments like that you can’t make up,” Strawther said. “Those are literally the moments you dream of. To even make a shot like that in March Madness and just to be back home in Vegas is like the cherry on top.

“But words can’t describe how proud I am of just our team and our resilience. I mean, nothing was going our way. We weren’t playing our brand of basketball at all through that whole first half. We flipped that switch. And there’s not a lot of teams in the country who could bond together and make a run like that.”