By PAUL GOTHAM
For the first 20 minutes, Gonzaga torched the nets from long range. The Bulldogs attacked from inside to make their decisive run.
After leading by as many as 14 points in Saturday’s Final Four matchup with South Carolina, Gonzaga fell victim to a 16-0 Gamecocks run. Rakym Felder converted two free throws to give South Carolina its first lead of the second half at 67-65 with 7:06 remaining in Saturday’s Final Four matchup.
The Bulldogs responded with seven straight to take the lead and never trailed again.
“I was just really, really proud of our guys, our late-game execution,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said. “I think that’s been a topic of speculation, because we haven’t really had many close games. But we practiced it a lot. The guys executed it perfectly, especially down the last four minutes. So really proud of them for that.”
Freshman big man Zach Collins started the run with an awkward three which found back iron and rolled in.
“I knew they were heating up Nigel (teammate Williams-Goss), and I just wanted to come in and hit a shot,” Collins said. “Right when I flashed up to the high post I knew I was going to shoot it. I think Przem was open on the low post. I probably should have passed it but luckily it went in.”
From there, Gonzaga went with its advantage in the paint.
Nigel Williams-Goss dished to Przemek Karnowksi for a dunk. Collins followed with a high-low feed to Karnowksi. With 4:48 Gonzaga led 72-67 on their way to a 77-73 victory and their first trip to the national championship game.
That the Bulldogs went to Karnowski when they needed a run, comes as no surprise. The 7-foot-1 senior dished out two assists in the first half including a kick-out from the post to Silas Melson for one of Gonzaga’s five first-half three pointers.
Against a South Carolina squad holding opponents to 30.1 percent (eighth in the nation), Gonzaga hit five of nine (55.6) from long range in the first half and 9 of 19 (47.4 percent) for the game.
Gonzaga balanced out the 27 points from distance with 30 points in the paint.
South Carolina converted 12 Gonzaga turnovers into a 15-0 advantage in points off turnovers, but the Gamecocks shot 25 of 36 from the floor overall.
Sindarius Thornwell, slowed by flu-like symptoms during the week leading up to the game, scored 15 points after averaging 25 in the Gamecocks first four NCAA Tournament games.
“You’ve got to give a lot of credit to our coaches,” Williams-Goss said. “I’ve said it all year long that they just do an unbelievable job of getting us dialed in and prepared to the players’ tendencies, and they do a great job of telling us even counters that they might go to. All we have to do is go follow their game plan. It’s actually pretty simple.
“Sometimes we stayed trailed his screens. Sometimes we switched him. So we just tried to keep him off balance and just make it as tough as possible. He’s a great player and we knew it wasn’t going to be easy to contain him.”
“They just crowd the paint,” Thornwell said. “My drive, they forced me to pass it out on my drives. And just protecting the rim real well. That was really it. Just forced me to pass the ball on my drives.”
The game pitted two of the nation’s top defensive squad. Gonzaga holding opponents to 60.9 points per game.
“I was disappointed in our transition defense and just a couple one or two breakdowns,” Few stated. “I thought they hit some really, really tough shots over our rim protection. But you gotta give them credit.
“But then they got in at half and I think they shot 37 percent. Again, sometimes our defense, it has kind of a cumulative effect on you, and at the end of the day you hold a team like that in a Final Four game in the 30s, that’s a really good thing.”
Collins registered a double-double with 14 points and 13 rebounds. Williams-Goss netted a game-high 23 points.
Gonzaga moves on to play the winner of the North Carolina and Oregon matchup.
“Just ecstatic to be still playing, and to be playing the last game of the year is just crazy cool,” Few said.