With Gonzaga shots falling, the University of Phoenix Stadium clock ticking and the Arizona sun still shining but metaphorically setting on South Carolina’s season, the result of Saturday’s first Final Four game seemed like a foregone conclusion. The scoreboard read Gonzaga 65, South Carolina 51. The midway point of the second half neared.
It’s around that time, though, that the Gamecocks turn into the Comeback Kings. They cut the lead to single digits. Then to two possessions. They got to within two. They tied the game. And finally, incredibly, they took the lead. For the fourth time in five magical games, they had turned a second-half deficit into a late lead.
But for the first time in five games, they met resistance that was just slightly too strong. Gonzaga responded to the 16-0 run with a 7-0 spurt of its own, and held on down the stretch for a 77-73 victory.
The Zags will advance to Monday’s national title game to play the winner of Saturday’s second semifinal between North Carolina and Oregon. South Carolina’s surprise run is over.
Nigel Williams-Goss led Gonzaga to within 40 minutes of a national title. (Getty) More
Nigel Williams-Goss had 23 points to lead Gonzaga, which used a balance attack behind Williams-Goss to find its way through, around and over South Carolina’s stifling defense. Zach Collins had 14 points off the bench. Przemek Karnowski had 13. Jordan Mathews had 12.
Sindarius Thornwell, who had been ill earlier in the week, finished with 15 for South Carolina, but didn’t play at the level that he had throughout the tournament.
The biggest shot of the game for Gonzaga came from Collins. Down two after South Carolina’s surge, he stepped out to the arc and launched a 3-pointer. It smacked into the back rim and backboard simultaneously, died, and fell through the net.
The brick that saved #Gonzaga in the #FinalFour by 7-foot freshman #ZachCollins.It snapped a 16-0run & Zags take lead & never trailed again! pic.twitter.com/NrDabLWblM — Kenny Roda (@TheKennyRoda) April 2, 2017
Gonzaga regained the lead, and would never relinquish it.
It held on in part due to great defensive execution on South Carolina’s final possession. The Gamecocks got the ball down three with 12 seconds remaining. With under five seconds left and the ball in the hands of Thornwell on the perimeter, Gonzaga’s Josh Perkins fouled the Gamecocks’ top scorer. It was a textbook example of how to employ the ‘foul up three’ strategy. Thornwell did what he could — he made the first free throw, and missed the second intentionally to give his teammates a chance at an offensive rebound — but Gonzaga’s Killian Tillie pulled down the rebound to put the Zags in celebration mode.
✅ Advance to title game
✅ Get drenched
✅ Do handstand#FinalFour #UnitedWeZag pic.twitter.com/V3ZzgrLfCU — NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) April 2, 2017
The game opened with Gonzaga’s one big matchup advantage playing out as some expected. Karnowski, Johnathan Williams and Collins all scored in the first four minutes as Gonzaga flooded the paint on offense. Mark Few went to his twin-towers lineup early with Karnowski and Collins, both 7-footers, alongside each other. The Zags battled through South Carolina’s physical defense to carve out good angles for post entries, and had a lot of success inside.
South Carolina tried to play Gonzaga’s big men one-on-one when possible, but the double teams started to come more often as the first half wore on. The reason for South Carolina’s hesitance to bring help was made clear when it did, though. Both Silas Melson and Jordan Mathews hit 3-pointers off kick-outs. Gonzaga went 5-for-9 from beyond the arc in the first half.
Williams-Goss also had an outstanding half, and an outstanding game, on both ends. He was particularly hot from midrange. He knocked down runners, pull-up jumpers and off-balance shots from 10-15 feet out, and made five of his six 2-point attempts. The junior point guard had 12 points at the break.