HOUSTON – For a while Friday night, Gonzaga’s strategy seemed to be: “Let’s miss shots by a smaller margin than UCLA.” Gonzaga struggled to put the ball in the basket. UCLA struggled to put the ball near the basket. For long stretches, it was the kind of ugly game that makes people question why basketball has to be played in a dome. Or at all, really.
And you know what? It didn’t matter. The Bulldogs were never going to lose this game. Never. Not from the opening tip, not when the teams combined to miss 19 straight shots and not when the Bruins went on a predictable run to start the second half, cutting Gonzaga's seven-point halftime lead to 35-34.
The Bulldogs were the tougher, smarter, more skilled team, and they knew it all along. The difference in Gonzaga’s 74-62 win in the Sweet 16 of the South Regional could be summed up in two players. UCLA has a freshman named Kevon Looney who could be an NBA lottery pick this summer. He finished with nine points and eight rebounds, but there were members of the Gonzaga band who had a bigger impact on the game.
Meanwhile, Bulldogs center Przemek Karnowski had 18 points, nine rebounds and roughly 11 yells with his fists out—he was one rebound away from a Caveman Triple Double. He was fantastic. Somebody should reward him with a jersey that isn’t so tight,
And when it was over, Gonzaga coach Mark Few poured some verbal high fructose corn syrup on his press conference. He talked about all the lovey-dovey college stuff that makes people roll their eyes. But if you watched the game, you could see it. You could see what Few meant when he said this:
"The biggest thing with this win is, it allows this group to play together, which is the highest motivating factor they’ve got going on. We’re 40 minutes away from another week together. The way they feel about each other, care about each other and love each other, that is the motivating factor."
That’s nice, Coach, but those of us in the media will choose your motivating factors, OK? You just coach the team.
We have decided that your team's motivating factor is to bring Gonzaga to its first Final Four, thus legitimizing the incredible success the program has enjoyed for the last 17 years … unless you then lose in the Final Four, at which point we will decide you need to win a national championship. Got it? That’s your narrative. Don’t stray from it unless we give you permission.
Kidding aside, even Few would acknowledge that making the Final Four would mean so much for Gonzaga—not just for the current players, but for all the former ones. And you know, it’s unlikely that the Bulldogs will beat Duke on Sunday, because the Blue Devils are the second-most talented team in the country and are playing extremely well. But it’s not impossible.
Duke has the nation's best post player in 6'11" freshman Jahlil Okafor but does not have much depth behind him. And while Okafor’s defensive deficiencies have been overblown, he is always at risk of getting into foul trouble. With the 7'1" Karnowski and 6'10" Domantas Sabonis, Gonzaga can make Okafor work on defense, and may be able to send him to the bench.
“That’s where I think our team’s deadly,” said Zags star Kyle Wiltjer, who was speaking generally, not about Duke specifically. “We have that depth and we can put really big foul pressure on other team’s bigs. Sometimes we get easy baskets because they are scared they’re gonna foul.”
Few called upon that strength during the only moment when there was any real tension in Friday's game, after the Bruins had gotten within one point two minutes into the second half. He called timeout, tweaked the Bulldogs' defense against pick-and-rolls and reminded his team to play inside-out.
“We called a bunch of sets that pretty much demand the ball goes in there,” Few said.
Gonzaga responded—not just by playing well, but by playing well in exactly the way Few wanted. As Wiltjer, the junior forward who finished with eight points and 10 rebounds, said: “We really just stayed true to our values … We’re very confident. We believe that we belong here. We’re playing with a chip on our shoulder.”
Few said afterward: “We didn’t play perfect tonight. Probably didn’t even play what we would consider really good. But we were tough and we were physical.”
The Bulldogs weren’t very good, but they were good enough. That’s the sign of an outstanding team. They will have to be great to beat Duke. But know this: They will be ready. After all these years, give them that.