SALT LAKE CITY? "We're not losing this game!" That was the message Gonzaga sophomore guard Kevin Pangos kept shouting at his teammates. The minutes were ticking away in a taut game with SWAC champion Southern, and the pro-Jaguar crowd, smelling blood, was in full throat. "'Be the aggressor!'" Pangos yelled above the din.
"I wanted to make sure we were all thinking the same way," he said later. "I was pretty sure we all were because we've been in that situation before."
Actually, this was new territory for the Zags. After rising to the top of the polls and earning a No. 1 seed for the first time in school history, the Zags were on the brink of another piece of history -- becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16. Things hadn't gone their way most of the night. The Jags were a far different team than the group the Zags had beaten 117-72 in Spokane in the fall of 2010. They challenged the Zags at the rim -- Brandon Moore and Javan Mitchell combined for seven of the Jags' eight blocks -- disrupted their offense and hit shots from well beyond the three-point line. (The Jags' leading scorer, Derick Beltran, an asthmatic who had tweeted Wednesday that practice at Salt Lake's 4,200-foot elevation was "brutal", had 21 points, including four three pointers.)
In the first half, the Jags held the Zags star center Kelly Olynyk to just four points. But even as open-side ball-screens started to open up things for him offensively in the second half, he lost out on some calls, getting whistled for his third and fourth fouls within 90 seconds in the last four minutes. With 2:28 left to play and the crowd in a froth, Beltran hit two free throws to draw the score to 59-58.
Thirty four seconds later, Pangos had his opportunity to ensure the Zags wouldn't go home prematurely. With the shot clock winding down, he squared up in the right corner and launched a well-practiced three. "I tried to draw contact, then took a step back," he says. "I didn't know I'd get that much space. But I set my feet, and it felt great. It's a shot I practice a bunch, and I know the feeling when it's going in and when it's not. That one felt really good."
With 15 seconds left, Pangos iced two free throws to seal the win at 64-58. It was only then that teammate Sam Dower felt he could breathe. "It was a crazy game," said Dower. "They were a hungry team and they were hitting shots on all cylinders. They fought till the end."
So, of course, did the Zags. But it's been a long time since they were the underdog that could rally a crowd like the Jags, who became the fifth 16th seed in the last 20 years to come within single digits of a No. 1 seed. "I think everybody was so moved by their effort and their resilience and their confidence," said Gonzaga coach Mark Few. "If I wasn't coaching on the other sideline, they would be a tough team not to root for, you know?"
Few admitted this game felt different from his previous 13 NCAA first-round games. Carrying the pressure of the No. 1 seed will do that. "It was definitely a different feeling going into this game, no question," he said. "I talked to Billy Donovan about it. He said that one year as a No. 1 they were up three at the half -- that was definitely in my head -- and they ended up winning going away." Few couldn't pin blame on one thing for the Zags' inability to put the game away, aside from being "a little reactive defensively." He added, "I don't think our guys were overly tight. Southern is just one of those teams that keeps possessions down, they directed shots, they got some guys that really made shots."
Even so, Southern exposed some things that could be concerning for Gonzaga going forward. The Jags, who entered the tournament shooting 36.2 percent from the three, shot 43.5 percent (10-for-23) against Gonzaga. Southern also successfully shut down the high-low game between Elias Harris and Olynyk, a vital part of the Gonzaga offense. And Harris, the team's second-leading scorer, was repeatedly blocked at the rim by double teams, finishing the game with just five points (on 2-for-10 shooting), nearly 10 points below his average. While assistant Ray Giacoletti saw this close escape and the poise it required down the stretch as "a good thing" for a team that has averaged an 18-point winning margin all season, Dower saw it differently. "This was a wake-up call for us," he said. "We have lots of room for improvement, things we need to fix by Saturday. Like our defense, our communication on ball screens, not letting shooters get open shots."
If Few has concerns going into Saturday's matchup with Wichita State, he wasn't saying. "Every game takes on its own life, basically," he said. "This one was about physical play around the rim, Beltran getting hot, making threes. And us just persevering."