Salt Lake City —Mayhem? This would have been the capper.
If Southern University had pulled off the historic upset of Gonzaga – and it was dang close – it might have been the first time a neutral crowd stormed the court.
Thrilled by what would have been the first victory by a men’s No. 16 team over a top-seed like Gonzaga, the riot might have spilled outside the arena, with the crowd rigging ropes to the John Stockton statue and pulling it down like a deposed dictator.
At the very least, the Zags were on the brink of making national headlines in font sizes reserved for natural disasters. Leno and Letterman joke writers were already at their keyboards.
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But in one of the all-time skin-of-the-teeth rallies, Gonzaga pulled out a 64-58 win Thursday in West Regional NCAA tournament play.
For those who have adopted the “survive and advance” credo of the late coach Jim Valvano as a catchphrase for tournament existence, the Zags were perfect examples.
It was dicey and nearly embarrassing, but they escaped to play Wichita State on Saturday.
Down the stretch, Southern was playing with the adrenalized boost of the profound underdog who had won over the crowd with an inspiring effort.
The weight of history made the air in the building scarce for the Zags.
“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t,” guard Kevin Pangos said when asked about feeling the pressure. “But we did a great job of getting rid of it and not thinking of what it could be, but instead, how do we win this.”
They won with Pangos nailing a 3, followed by a 3 from Gary Bell Jr., and a pair of free throws by Pangos.
Neither team played in step with their seeding; it felt more like a match between 8 and 9 seeds. With a couple of helicopters playing in the front court, the Jaguars collapsed inside and met Gonzaga’s big men at the rim.
Center Kelly Olynyk figured a way to play through it (finishing with 21 points and 10 boards), but forward Elias Harris did not. Several times, Harris made power moves to the hoop only to get shots swatted back at him.
Harris is the team’s second-leading scorer at 15 points a game; he’s made a career out of jamming the ball in the faces of intimidated opponents. But on Thursday, he finished with five points on 2-for-10 shooting. And he was among the victims of the Jaguars’ eight blocks.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few praised the Jaguars and said their performance was not unexpected.
“The more I watched film on them, the more I thought, ‘Hey, this could be a real grinder,’ ” he said. “They don’t give you a lot of easy opportunities, and they’re very patient on offense.”
Only five No. 16 seeds have come within single digits of a No. 1 seed in 20 years, and the six-point differential was the closest a bottom-seeded team has come since 1996.
Few talked to his players about keeping their composure, and playing with poise late in the game. He warned them the crowd would shift allegiances to the underdog.
“I said, that doesn’t matter, whatever comes at us – if a call doesn’t go our way, we miss an easy bunny, miss an assignment – just move on to the next play; we’re going to get this done.”
The two most obvious possibilities: Either the Zags were vastly overrated, or they were a little rusty having had 10 days off since winning the West Coast Conference tournament. If it’s the latter, this defibrillator of a close call might have shocked them into a better rhythm.
And there are valuable takeaways: They know they’ll need to defend the perimeter better; they know that teams are on to their high-low post action with Harris and Olynyk, and that Harris is going to have to either find some booster rockets to aid his liftoff, or develop some new moves on the low block.
But it also affirmed that Olynyk is a studly warhorse to ride when the going is grim. In the second half, Olynyk scored 17 points and pulled down seven rebounds.
Olynyk also may have best captured an existential truism of this unpredictable tournament with this quote: “Any win in the tournament is a good win.”
Dave Boling: 253-597-8440 email@example.com