SALT LAKE CITY – Someday, a No. 16 seed will defeat a No. 1 seed in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
Thursday afternoon, the Gonzaga Bulldogs very nearly became that historic first victim.
Gonzaga was forced to scratch and claw from start to finish to overcome a memorable performance by the unheralded Southern University Jaguars in a 64-58 thriller at EnergySolutions Arena.
The Jaguars won over most of the 12,621 spectators with a gutsy effort that found them tied at 56 with Gonzaga – ranked No. 1 in the country – with less than 4 minutes remaining.
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The Bulldogs needed a brilliant second-half performance by Kelly Olynyk and clutch 3-pointers late in the game by Gary Bell Jr. and Kevin Pangos to avoid one of the biggest upsets in college
“No one likes a loser,” Southern point guard Jameel Grace said, “and unfortunately, that’s what we were today.”
Thousands of witnesses begged to differ. The Jaguars played hard-nosed defense all afternoon and relied on lights-out shooting by Derick Beltran in the final minutes to keep things interesting to the end.
“Coming into the game,” Grace said, “we thought we were going to make history.”
The Jaguars might have done just that if Olynyk – held to four points in the first half – had not scored 17 of Gonzaga’s 20 points in the first 14 minutes of the second half.
“He played like an All-American – which he is,” Bell said.
Bell wasn’t too shabby himself. The former Kentridge High School star snapped the tie at 56 by draining a 3-pointer from near the top of the arc with 3:18 to play.
“He’s ‘Big Shot Gary,’ ” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said with a smile.
A pair of free throws by Southern’s Beltran made it a one-point game before Pangos inserted the dagger with a 3-pointer from the right corner with 1:55 remaining.
“Kevin is just a clutch player,” Few said.
Beltran was similarly clutch, scoring all nine of Southern’s points in the final 5:49. Beltran finished with 21 points, even though Bell practically shared his jersey on some shots.
“He was feeling it,” Bell said, “When you’re feeling it, I guess you don’t need that much room.”
Gonzaga (32-2) had little room for error in its West Regional opener. The Bulldogs lauded the Jaguars for their play and stressed that they weren’t looking past Southern, nor were they rusty after a 10-day layoff.
“The more I watched them on tape,” Few said, “the more I was like, ‘These guys are going to be a handful.’ They defend every possession, (they) kind of direct your shots.”
Gonzaga faces unranked, ninth-seeded Wichita State (27-8) on Saturday in Salt Lake City at a time to be determined. The Shockers beat 20th-ranked, eighth-seeded Pittsburgh, 73-55, in Thursday’s early game.
Olynyk, who led Gonzaga with 21 points and 10 rebounds, credited slick pick-and-roll passes from Pangos and David Stockton for much of his second-half success. Pangos added 16 points on four 3-pointers (in nine attempts), five assists and two steals.
Bell tacked on 11 points in Gonzaga’s 15th straight win. Star forward Elias Harris, the victim of some of Southern’s eight blocked shots, scored just five points on 2-for-10 shooting.
Only Beltran scored in double figures for the Jaguars, who shot 39.1 percent from the field. Gonzaga shot 41.8 percent against one of the national leaders in field-goal-shooting defense.
The Jaguars, from Baton Rouge, La., finished 23-10. Two years ago, before coach Roman Banks arrived, the Jaguars were 4-26.
“This has been an amazing ride for us,” Banks said.
Said Few: “All the credit goes to Southern, the players and Roman, for just an amazing job he’s done flipping that program around in such a short time.”