BUFFALO, N.Y. - In his four seasons at Gonzaga, Matt Bouldin has grown familiar with what it takes to come through in the clutch.
It was Bouldin’s composure – and the 14 points he scored in the second half – that allowed the eighth-seeded Bulldogs to avoid squandering an 18-point lead and hang on for a 67-60 victory over Florida State on Friday night in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“We play in so many big games like that all across the country that they’re essentially NCAA tournament games really,” Bouldin said. “But after the game, I’m not really thinking about all those other games we had. I’m just really happy about this victory.”
In finishing with 17 points, Bouldin made five of six free throws and had a key defensive rebound in the final 90 seconds as the Bulldogs (27-6) withstood the second-half rally by the Seminoles (22-10).
Steven Gray scored 15 points, while Robert Sacre added 13 points and nine rebounds for the Zags, who are making their 12th straight tournament appearance and 13th overall. The West Coast Conference regular-season champions advanced to Sunday’s second round and will face top-seeded Syracuse, which rolled past Vermont, 79-56.
Deividas Dulkys scored 14 points and Solomon Alabi had 13 for the ninth-seeded Seminoles, who still have a way to go in their quest to be considered a basketball power. At least they made things competitive.
Opening the second half down 35-19, Florida State started chipping away and finally got the crowd on its feet after Alabi hit two free throws to make it 51-44 with 6:37 remaining.
The Seminoles eventually cut the lead to 59-54 with 2:21 left when Dulkys banked in a 3-pointer. They had a chance to pull closer but Michael Snaer missed two free throws a minute later.
Bouldin pulled down the rebound and the Bulldogs made eight of 10 free throws to close out the victory.
“We had nowhere to go but up. We were down in a big hole and we just had to do something,” Dulkys said.
“I really thought we had a chance.”
Though disappointed with the loss, Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton hoped his players can learn something from this experience by how composed the Bulldogs were with the game on the line.
“I told our players that we have moved. We have elevated our status. And you can use programs like (Gonzaga) as an example,” Hamilton said. “They are a team that has tremendous amount of courage. ... They’ve gotten the most out of their talent, and they ought to be commended for that.”
The Bulldogs’ high level of talent was certainly on display with a near-perfect first-half performance when they picked apart the Seminoles’ vaunted defense.
After giving up the first basket, Gonzaga opened a 24-9 lead before the game was 12 minutes old and never trailed again.
The Bulldogs were so efficient that by the time they opened a 17-7 lead, every Gonzaga starter had scored at least one basket.
Gonzaga frustrated the Seminoles at both ends of the court, while their offense patiently worked the ball around to tire Florida State’s defense. By the time Florida State made its way into the offensive end, it was forced into taking poor shots or – by the time the game appeared to be getting out of hand – awkward 3-point attempts. Forward Ryan Reid missed all seven attempts in the first half.
The Bulldogs went 21-of-42 from the field to end the Seminoles’ string at 67 games of holding opponents to under 50 percent.
They also out-rebounded Florida State 38-32.
“It was a monster challenge,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said of facing the Seminoles’ defense. “Our guys played with an incredible amount of poise, and they stuck with the game plan.”
Gonzaga bounced back from a dreadful 81-62 loss to Saint Mary’s in the West Coast Conference title game on March 8.
Florida State, meanwhile, closed its season losing eight of 17, including a 58-52 loss to North Carolina State in the Atlantic Coast Conference quarterfinals.