The circumstances surrounding Friday night's South Regional Sweet 16 matchup at NRG Stadium in Houston were strange: UCLA, a Pac-12 program that has won 11 national championships and is a college basketball blueblood, entered the game against Gonzaga, a West Coast Conference program best known for slaying giants, as an underdog. The result, however, was not unusual based on the way both teams fared during the regular season.
The second-seeded Bulldogs rolled over the 11th-seeded Bruins, 74-62, marking the second time in less than four months that Gonzaga has soundly defeated UCLA.
Both teams are more highly regarded for their offense than their defense, but neither could consistently score in the half court in the first 20 minutes. The Zags failed to display the firepower that has made them one of the nation’s top offensive teams, and the Bruins struggled to create and convert good looks far more than they did in either of their first two NCAA tournament games.
With 6:58 remaining before the break, UCLA had knocked down only six of its 20 field goal attempts, had not made a single three-point field goal and was averaging 0.54 points per possession. Meanwhile, Gonzaga, which ranks fourth in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, had connected on only seven of its 23 field goal attempts and one of its eight attempts from deep for an average of 0.94 points per possession, though it did have a 20-12 lead.
The Zags then pushed their lead to double-digits for the first time by scoring seven points in a three-possession span. Guard Gary Bell Jr. made two free throws, wing Byron Wesley hit a three and center Przemek Karnowski converted a layup that made the score 27-16.
UCLA responded, however. Guard Norman Powell and center Tony Parker (who scored a career-high 28 points in the Round of 32 but had been held scoreless for the first 17 minutes of the first half) combined for the Bruins' next 11 points to slice Gonzaga’s lead to seven with 1:03 to go, which remained its lead at the break.
UCLA drew within one when it scored three consecutive field goals to open the second half, but Gonzaga then ripped off a 12-0 run that effectively put the game out of reach. It included three buckets from the 7'1" Karnowski, who had success establishing position in the post and either scoring over his shoulder or dishing to teammates. The play embedded below shows one of multiple deft passes Karnowski threw in the second half.
[via Vine user David Gardner]
Karnowski finished with a game-high 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting and eight rebounds, while 6'10" freshman Domantas Sabonis made six of his nine field-goal attempts for 12 points to go with eight boards. The two big men dominated UCLA’s front line, helping Gonzaga to a 50-39 rebounding advantage.
The Zags had handed the Bruins their only loss of the regular season at Pauley Pavilion in December, an 87-74 defeat that touched off a five-game losing streak for UCLA. The streak included a 39-point loss to Kentucky on Dec. 20 in which the Bruins scored only seven points in the first half. That defeat clouded the view of UCLA's subsequent performance, even as it rebounded to go 11-7 in Pac-12 play and finish fourth in the conference standings.
Most experts didn’t even project the Bruins to make the NCAA tournament because their resume lacked quality wins. Yet not only did the selection committee award them an at-large bid, it didn’t place them in one of the First Four games. UCLA beat No. 6 seed SMU thanks to a controversial goaltending call and drew No. 14 seed UAB in the Round of 32 after the Blazers shockingly upset third-seeded Iowa State. A 17-point win in that game granted UCLA its second consecutive Sweet 16 berth.
Meanwhile, this is considered arguably the most talented team of coach Mark Few’s tenure. Point guard Kevin Pangos was named the WCC player of the year and has made the league’s first team for four consecutive seasons. Wiltjer, a transfer from Kentucky who was rated a five-star recruit out of high school, is eighth in the country in three-point marksmanship, making nearly 48% from outside. Defenders struggle to guard Karnowski because of his combination of size and skills. And Sabonis is an NBA prospect.
Though Gonzaga has made the NCAA tournament in 17 consecutive years, this marks the first time since 1999 that it has advanced to the Elite Eight. The Zags will face the winner of Friday night’s other game between top-seed Duke and No. 5 seed Utah.