Gonzaga 77, South Carolina 73
Where: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Arizona
GLENDALE – Gonzaga coach Mark Few, right arm draped over the back of an empty chair, broke into a relaxed grin, looking as if he had been there before. Which he hasn’t. And almost wasn’t. The Bulldogs, after doing almost everything right for nearly 30 minutes, seemingly on cruise control, instead took the hard way in what became a thrilling Final Four game against always-stubborn South Carolina on Saturday.
Gonzaga squandered all of a 14-point, second-half lead before rallying and holding on with two late free throws, advancing to its first NCAA Tournament title game and ending the Gamecocks’ surprising postseason run with a 77-73 semifinal victory at University of Phoenix Stadium.”Man, just an awesome, awesome basketball game, with just how hard both teams competed,” Few said. “I mean, that run South Carolina made on us, that just shows the heart of a lion that they have. It took everything we had to hold them off and come back.”
Gonzaga (37-1) will play North Carolina on Monday night after the Tar Heels held off Oregon for a 77-76 win in the late game Saturday.
Point guard Nigel Williams-Goss led the way with 23 points, five rebounds and six assists, and 7-foot freshman Zach Collins came off the bench to post 14 points, a career-high 13 rebounds and a career-best six blocked shots.
South Carolina had a chance to tie, taking possession with 12.7 seconds left, down 75-72. They didn’t get a shot. Following Few’s instructions, Gonzaga guard Josh Perkins committed a foul with 3.5 seconds to go, sending guard Sindarius Thornwell to the line.
“We love to make the ball handler use as much time as possible where he’s not in a threatening position … and then foul,” Few said. “I thought we waited a little long to do that quite honestly. But Perk went out and grabbed him before he was in the shooting motion and, as it turned out, you couldn’t be any better, you know?”
Thornwell made the first free throw and line-drived the second for a deliberate miss, but the rebound stayed near the rim, allowing Gonzaga backup post player Killian Tillie to grab it before he was fouled.
Tillie made both ends of a one-and-one with 2.2 seconds left.
The Gamecocks (26-11) had reached their first Final Four as a No. 7 seed on the strength of Thornwell’s scoring and their havoc-creating defense.
But Gonzaga shot 48.3 percent from the field and Thornwell, who averaged a tournament-best 25.8 points before Saturday, might still have been feeling the effects of an illness that kept him out of practice Thursday. He finished with 15 points on 4-of-12 shooting and didn’t score until the 6:25 mark of the first half.
And the comeback came up just short.
“What these kids have done is pretty special,” said South Carolina coach Frank Martin, tearing up at times in the press conference. “When you get people to travel across the country by the masses because they believe in what you do, it’s powerful stuff. And they’ve impacted our community in an unbelievable way, which is worth so much more than the score of a game.”
Top-seeded Gonzaga went up 65-51 when Williams-Goss flipped in a driving layup and made a free throw for a three-point play with 10:55 left.
South Carolina forward Chris Silva answered with a three-point play of his own, igniting a 16-0 run for a 67-65 Gamecocks lead with 7:06 to go.
Collins regained the lead for Gonzaga when his 3-pointer bounced around and in, starting a 7-0 run. It was that kind of day for Collins.
“He told me before the game, ‘Look, I wouldn’t want to be playing against me today,'” said Williams-Goss. “And Coach says it all year that we just can’t talk the talk, we gotta walk the walk.
“When he told me that I looked at him and I said, ‘All right, let’s do it then.'”
Guard PJ Dozier had 17 points to lead South Carolina, which had been strong in the second half throughout the NCAA Tournament, outscoring its opponents by an average of 13.5 points after halftime.
“Whether we win or lose, we’re so resilient,” Martin said. “It’s who we are. That’s why I’ve been so positive and so proud of these kids the whole year.”
NOTES: Gonzaga C Przemek Karnowski sat out the final 5:12 of the first half after getting poked in the right eye. He received treatment at halftime and started the second half. … South Carolina F Chris Silva had 13 points and 13 rebounds. … Gonzaga is 26-17 in the NCAA Tournament under coach Mark Few, who has led the program to the NCAAs in each of his 18 seasons. … South Carolina G Sindarius Thornwell, going 5 of 6 from the free throw line, moved into third place on the program’s career list for made free throws. … John Higgins, who received death threats from Kentucky fans after working the Wildcats’ loss in the Elite Eight last week, was one of three officials for the game. … Legendary Gonzaga PG John Stockton attended the game.