GLENDALE, Ariz. — It’s a move to diffuse drama, a wet-blanket calculation meant to remove one of basketball’s most thrilling plays—the buzzer-beating shot—from the arsenal of a game’s potential events. But when Gonzaga guard Josh Perkins fouled South Carolina star Sindarius Thornwell with 3.5 seconds remaining in Saturday’s national semifinal, with his Bulldogs leading the Gamecocks by three points, how much could it truly dampen the proceedings? Here was Gonzaga, onetime Cinderella turned monkey-backed early-exiter, verging on converting its first Final Four berth into its first appearance in the national title game.
And so when reserve forward Killian Tillie secured the requisite rebound after Thornwell missed the second shot and was fouled himself, earning a chance to seal the game at the other end, a red-and-blue chunk of this monstrous football stadium’s lower bowl began to build its rumble. It burst into an elation when Tillie sank his first shot, putting the Zags up three with the clock reading 2.2, and then something louder still when the second fell, putting the lead to four points and the game fully out of South Carolina’s reach. Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga’s brilliant All-America point guard, threw both fists into the air. Coach Mark Few waved at his players not to foul. And Gamecocks guard PJ Dozier caught the inbound and chucked a futile prayer from halfcourt that clanked away as time expired, after which the Bulldogs’ bench emptied and hurried up onto the elevated court for an explosion of chest bumps and hugs, 48 hours away from playing for the national championship.
“It has definitely sunk in,” Williams-Goss said in the locker room after the 77–73 win, when asked whether he’d yet processed that fact. “As soon as that buzzer went off, that’s all I could think about.”
Nineteen NCAA tournaments ago Gonzaga arrived in March an underdog darling and strung together three upsets as a No. 10 seed on its way to an unlikely Elite Eight. In the nearly two decades since it has made annual tourney returns and outgrown the mid-major label to become one of college basketball’s brand-name programs, producing a national player of the year (Adam Morrison, in 2006) and three other first-team All-Americas and NBA lottery picks. But until this season the Zags had only once advanced as far as in that initial name-making run, and never further. They entered this tournament 32–1 and as a No. 1 seed for the second time, carrying with that the attached prestige and expectation, as well as their greatest chance to complete fully and undisputedly their long march from a hoops David to Goliath (outcome of said parable aside).
They are now in position to do so because they are, in their composition and play, indistinguishable from the sport’s elite. In Williams-Goss they have a former five-star recruit who has become a maestro lead guard capable of taking over games. In Przemek Karnowski they have a burly, bearded, 7’ 1” 300-pounder whose mere presence alters shots and whose inside-out passing warps defenses. In freshman Zach Collins they have a springy, versatile potential one-and-done forward coming off the bench, the kind of luxury typically reserved for true blue bloods.
“It's not  anymore,” said South Carolina coach Frank Martin. “They were Cinderella and all that pretty stuff in [‘99]. They've been in this thing for  consecutive years. They're as high major as high major can get.”
They proved it, perhaps fittingly, by dispatching the owners of this tournament’s glass slipper, a football-first school with a No. 7 seed and no NCAA tournament wins in four-plus decades that had ridden a transcendent star (Thornwell) and harassing defense (no. 2 nationally in adjusted efficiency) to its own first-ever Final Four. The Zags spent plenty of their preparation focused on how to combat both. “We told our guys we’re not gonna run a lot of plays today,” said assistant coach Tommy Lloyd. “We wanted to attack them with some side ball screens in the middle of the floor, and we wanted to attack them on post touches. In each situation we’ll adapt and react accordingly.” As for Thornwell, Lloyd said, “We were gonna have a plan to switch some stuff, to go under some stuff, to go over some stuff, just to not give him a steady diet.”
In the game’s early going, all went according to plan. Gonzaga operated its offense through near-constant paint touches, passing out as necessary for open jumpers, and rendered Thornwell—who missed Thursday’s practice due to an illness—a virtual nonfactor, as he failed to score through the game’s opening 11 minutes. The Bulldogs steadily built a lead but the Gamecocks hung around, until a stray finger threatened to change the game’s dimension. With some 5:20 to play in the first half, Karnowski was blocked by South Carolina’s Chris Silva, whose follow-through caught Karnowski in the right eye. The Polish-born senior stayed on the ground holding his face, then came out of the game at the next stoppage. “I had blurry vision, a little bit shadow,” Karnowski said later. “I couldn't really open it.” A few minutes later, he headed to the locker room to be evaluated.
But the Bulldogs would miss few beats in his absence. Williams-Goss, a psychology major with a 3.84 GPA, patiently picked apart the Gamecocks’ defense, driving and scoring on an array of crafty and off-kilter shots on his way to 12 first-half points. “He was in total control of the game for the first 30 minutes or so,” Martin said. “Total control of the game.” Playing extended minutes with Karnowski sidelined, Collins seized center stage, putting up eight points and six rebounds in 11 minutes.
And so Gonzaga headed into the break not only leading by nine but having mustered a whopping 1.18 points per possession against a team that had held previous opponents to 0.88. But South Carolina had made second-half runs its signature, having trailed at the half of three of its four tournament wins. Rem Bakamus, Gonzaga’s flowy-haired senior walk-on, had seen that statistic on a TV graphic this week, and in the halftime locker room he reminded his teammates as much. “They’re not gonna go away,” Bakamus said. “They’ve been here before.”
The hole would get deeper still—Gonzaga led by 14 with just under 11 minutes to play—but indeed the Gamecocks did not relent. A 16–0 run over the next four minutes put them up two with seven minutes left. “Stay connected,” the Bulldogs staff told the players. “This time of year, these games are possession by possession.” With its big man back on the floor, Gonzaga staved off the surge with a small one of its own, shaking off a plague of fouls to creep back ahead a minute later, after a Collins three and Karnowski dunk. Never again would South Carolina get closer than two points.
The lead was three when Williams-Goss came up short for one of the few times on the night, missing a jumper with 16 seconds left. The Gamecocks had the chance to tie on a single, long shot, but did not take one quick enough. Standing in front of his bench, Few kicked at the air and told his team to foul, so that South Carolina would have a chance at only two points. Thornwell made the first shot and missed the second on purpose, but Tillie—who played only seven minutes in the game—secured the rebound on one end, then the win on the other. Gonzaga, at long last, would be playing for a national championship.
In the locker room, Williams-Goss shrugged off the supposed stress of the moment. “When you do your homework and you’re prepared,” he said, “there’s nothing really to be worried about.” Some 20 yards away, Karnowski, who endured back surgery and a crippling staph infection during last season, balked when asked to reflect on how Monday’s championship would be the finale of his five years as a Zag. “Let me enjoy it, man!” he said, his right eye still red from Silva’s poke. “I’m not done. I’m not done yet. One more game. One more game.”
A short time earlier, Few had entered the locker room to a celebratory spray of water, then dove to the floor in an attempt at an ersatz handstand. Then he strode coolly into the hallway in a hoodie, on the way to his first trip to the season’s final night, looking comfortable as could be.