Final Four: Gonzaga beats South Carolina to advance to national title game

With Gonzaga shots falling, the University of Phoenix Stadium clock ticking and the Arizona sun still shining but metaphorically setting on South Carolina’s season, the result of Saturday’s first Final Four game seemed like a foregone conclusion. The scoreboard read Gonzaga 65, South Carolina 51. The midway point of the second half neared.

It’s around that time, though, that the Gamecocks turn into the Comeback Kings. They cut the lead to single digits. Then to two possessions. They got to within two. They tied the game. And finally, incredibly, they took the lead. For the fourth time in five magical games, they had turned a second-half deficit into a late lead.

But for the first time in five games, they met resistance that was just slightly too strong. Gonzaga responded to the 16-0 run with a 7-0 spurt of its own, and held on down the stretch for a 77-73 victory.

The Zags will advance to Monday’s national title game to play the winner of Saturday’s second semifinal between North Carolina and Oregon. South Carolina’s surprise run is over.

Nigel Williams-Goss led Gonzaga to within 40 minutes of a national title. (Getty)
Nigel Williams-Goss led Gonzaga to within 40 minutes of a national title. (Getty)

Nigel Williams-Goss had 23 points to lead Gonzaga, which used a balance attack behind Williams-Goss to find its way through, around and over South Carolina’s stifling defense. Zach Collins had 14 points off the bench. Przemek Karnowski had 13. Jordan Mathews had 12.

Sindarius Thornwell, who had been ill earlier in the week, finished with 15 for South Carolina, but didn’t play at the level that he had throughout the tournament.

The biggest shot of the game for Gonzaga came from Collins. Down two after South Carolina’s surge, he stepped out to the arc and launched a 3-pointer. It smacked into the back rim and backboard simultaneously, died, and fell through the net.

Gonzaga regained the lead, and would never relinquish it.

It held on in part due to great defensive execution on South Carolina’s final possession. The Gamecocks got the ball down three with 12 seconds remaining. With under five seconds left and the ball in the hands of Thornwell on the perimeter, Gonzaga’s Josh Perkins fouled the Gamecocks’ top scorer. It was a textbook example of how to employ the ‘foul up three’ strategy. Thornwell did what he could — he made the first free throw, and missed the second intentionally to give his teammates a chance at an offensive rebound — but Gonzaga’s Killian Tillie pulled down the rebound to put the Zags in celebration mode.

The game opened with Gonzaga’s one big matchup advantage playing out as some expected. Karnowski, Johnathan Williams and Collins all scored in the first four minutes as Gonzaga flooded the paint on offense. Mark Few went to his twin-towers lineup early with Karnowski and Collins, both 7-footers, alongside each other. The Zags battled through South Carolina’s physical defense to carve out good angles for post entries, and had a lot of success inside.

South Carolina tried to play Gonzaga’s big men one-on-one when possible, but the double teams started to come more often as the first half wore on. The reason for South Carolina’s hesitance to bring help was made clear when it did, though. Both Silas Melson and Jordan Mathews hit 3-pointers off kick-outs. Gonzaga went 5-for-9 from beyond the arc in the first half.

Williams-Goss also had an outstanding half, and an outstanding game, on both ends. He was particularly hot from midrange. He knocked down runners, pull-up jumpers and off-balance shots from 10-15 feet out, and made five of his six 2-point attempts. The junior point guard had 12 points at the break.

The one worrying moment of the half for Gonzaga came when Karnowski went up for a layup on the left side of the rim. He was rejected by South Carolina’s Chris Silva, and Silva’s follow-through caught Karnowski in the eye. He lay on the court for a minute before going to the bench, and didn’t return in the first half.

South Carolina kept pace with Gonzaga’s offense for much of the half despite a quiet performance from Thornwell. The senior star made just one field goal and had only five points. But Justin McKie, Silva and Duane Notice stepped up, and had the Gamecocks within two at 38-36 with just over two minutes to play in the half.

Those last two minutes turned out to be a crucial stretch of the game, though. Gonzaga closed with a 7-0 flurry, capped off by a Mathews 3, and went into the locker room up nine, 45-36.

Karnowski returned for the second half after seeing an eye specialist in the locker room, and got right back to work. He scored on a putback, then drew a double and passed out to Williams-Goss at the top of the key for a 3 that extended Gonzaga’s lead to 11.

Gonzaga would eventually push the lead to 14, but South Carolina responded, just as they have done all tournament. Silva completed a three-point play; P.J. Dozier hit a jumper; Thornwell drained a 3; Dozier splashed another mid-range shot. On the other end, South Carolina picked up its defense. Eventually, two free throws from Silva whittled the lead all the way down to two. Then Dozier tied the game:

Moments later, two Rakym Felder free throws completed the 16-0 run.

The Zags had a response of their own, though. Collins’ 3 squirmed in, and the favorites regained the lead. Karnowski scored two buckets in a row to push the advantage back to five.

The teams went back and forth down the stretch, with Dozier, Thornwell and Silva keeping South Carolina within touching distance. Silva’s two free throws cut the lead to two.

Gonzaga’s defense in the final two minutes, however, was outstanding. The Gamecocks got no clean looks at the rim. They got the ball down three with 12 seconds remaining, but Gonzaga smartly fouled before a shot could be taken. The rebound of the intentionally missed second free throw iced the victory, and sent the Zags on to Monday night’s national championship game.

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