This time, one half is enough for Gonzaga
BUFFALO – This supposedly isn’t a vintage Gonzaga team.
Nobody would have known that from the first 20 minutes of the Bulldogs’ 67-60 West Region first-round victory over Florida State at HSBC Arena. Gonzaga torched the nation’s top-ranked team in field-goal percentage defense while building a 16-point halftime lead.
“When we swing the ball and play together, that’s what happens,” freshman forward Elias Harris said. “That’s what we’re capable of.”
In the second half, though, the Bulldogs showed the flaws that caused them to drop the types of games this season that Gonzaga teams typically don’t lose. Gonzaga (27-6) allowed Florida State (22-10) to whittle an 18-point advantage down to four before holding off the Seminoles in the final two minutes.
Though Gonzaga made exactly half its shots – ending Florida State’s streak of 67 consecutive games in which it had kept opponents under 50 percent – the Bulldogs still have plenty of room for improvement. Half a great game was good enough in the first round. But unless the Bulldogs deliver a complete performance Sunday against Syracuse, they will be done for the season.
“The lesson I’ll take from the second half is you have to keep the intensity up,” Harris said. “You saw at the end [the margin] was like four points. It can happen so fast.
“You need to play 40 minutes very hard of smart basketball.”
Twenty minutes of great basketball was good enough to get Gonzaga into the second round, and that’s quite an achievement for this team. Gonzaga lost four of its top five scorers from a team that reached the South Region Sweet 16 last season. Guard Matt Bouldin is the lone senior in a starting lineup that includes players from three countries, and the new lineup needed time to develop chemistry.
“Those first 10 practices, I was [thinking], ‘Man, this could be a long year,’ ” Bouldin said. “But we really came together. The guys really bought in, and it’s been great ever since.”
There were a few bumps along the way. Gonzaga suffered a humiliating 76-41 loss to Duke in mid-December. After posting a combined 27-1 record in West Coast Conference competition the past two seasons, Gonzaga lost two conference games this season. In addition, the Bulldogs failed to win the WCC tournament for just the third time in the past 12 seasons.
But for 20 minutes Friday, the Bulldogs looked every bit as good as the 1999 Gonzaga team that advanced to a regional final. Or the 2006 squad that would have reached the Elite Eight if it hadn’t collapsed down the stretch against UCLA.
“I thought that in the first half, Gonzaga showed a tremendous amount of poise and a very high level of concentration when they had open looks and had shots in the lane,” Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said. “I thought they really did a very good job of finishing their plays.”
Gonzaga also showed off its international flavor.
Sophomore center Robert Sacre, a 7-footer from British Columbia, played just five games last season before foot problems knocked him out for the season. Friday, he had 13 points and nine rebounds to help Gonzaga outrebound the taller Seminoles. He showed his Canadian roots afterward when he made a hockey reference while discussing the game’s physical nature.
“Coach [Mark Few] was emphasizing in practice that it was going to be a physical game,” Sacre said. “Going in, you knew you were just going to hit bodies. We knew coming into Buffalo it was going to be a Buffalo Sabres game, basically.”
Harris, a 6-7 freshman from Germany, headed into the tournament as the Bulldogs’ top rebounder (7.2) and second-leading scorer (14.7). He scored 11 points of his 13 points in the first half Friday to help Gonzaga build its lead.
Sacre’s emergence and Harris’ arrival have helped the Bulldogs develop a different type of chemistry.
“Last year we had a great team,” said sophomore guard Demetri Goodson, a Texan. “I can’t take anything away from that team. It was so much more talented than this team, but this team is more of a team than last year. Everyone plays their role right on this team. Every day we just go out there and fight. That’s what I love about this team.”
But forget chemistry. Gonzaga won’t match the postseason accomplishments of last season’s team unless it plays much better than it did in the second half against FSU. After playing so crisply in the first half, the Bulldogs had an equal number of baskets (nine) and turnovers in the final 20 minutes.
The Bulldogs led 59-55 with 1:37 left when Florida State freshman Michael Snaer missed two free throws. Gonzaga then regrouped and went 8-for-10 from the line in the final 90 seconds.
“I’m extremely proud of these guys,” Few said. “We knew it was going to be hard-fought. We knew it was going to be physical with their length and athleticism and just how tough they were on the glass. But I thought our mindset was great from the start.”
Gonzaga certainly knows how to start. Now the Bulldogs must learn how to finish.