Julian Strawther sends Gonzaga to Elite Eight with another shot for the ages against UCLA

LAS VEGAS — Julian Strawther asked his coach a question, and in the heat of a tense, win-or-go-home NCAA tournament moment, Mark Few didn't want to hear it.

“Can I shoot it if I’m open?” Strawther said as Few drew up a play designed to get him going downhill toward the rim.

Few’s response was too profane for either of them to divulge, even in the euphoria of a night that will never be forgotten in the history of Gonzaga basketball. But the gist of it was simple: Why would you even ask? Of course you can shoot it.

And so that’s what Strawther was going to do.

It was immaterial that Gonzaga didn’t need a 3-pointer at that moment, trailing UCLA by just a point with plenty of time to get whatever shot it wanted. It didn't matter that Strawther, trailing the ballhandler across half court, was standing on the March Madness logo when he got the ball with just a tick under 10 seconds left in the game.

This is Las Vegas. This is Strawther’s hometown. And every fiber of his being told him that the little bit of space UCLA gave him was going to be the best chance he would have to pull Gonzaga to the Elite Eight.

“I got the ball and it was in my range,” Strawther said. “So I shot it.”

Mick Cronin knew what was coming. UCLA’s coach had seen Strawther bury those shots all year: A top of the key three for a win against BYU, a couple late daggers in November to beat Xavier. It’s why UCLA had been determined to give him no space all night long, and at the end of an epic game the Bruins seemingly had under control, then frittered away, then stole back on freshman Amari Bailey’s three with 12.2 seconds remaining, a look for Strawther was the last thing Cronin wanted to give up.

“We should have been tighter on Strawther,” Cronin said. “We were the whole game.”

Just like that, they weren’t. Just like that, Gonzaga won, 79-76. Just like that, the Zags have gotten their payback and then some for a 17-year-old basketball sin whose relevance never seems to fade.

Julian Strawther lifted Gonzaga to victory with a late 3-pointer against UCLA.
Julian Strawther lifted Gonzaga to victory with a late 3-pointer against UCLA.

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On March 23, 2006, Gonzaga blew a Sweet 16 game to UCLA in a ghastly mess of mistakes that left Adam Morrison weeping on the floor. Ever since then, it’s the Bruins that have done the crying.

In the span of two years, Gonzaga has beaten UCLA in the Final Four on a running half-court shot by Jalen Suggs that slammed into the backboard before falling through and now on a shot that few college players would have had the courage to take much less the skill to make.

The odds of one program delivering that much pain to another are almost astronomical. Even if you had written a script of those two endings, they couldn't have been more dramatic than real life.

“Me being home, being down at halftime, coming back and taking a big lead, then give it right back up and come back down and make a shot like that, it really felt like a movie,” Strawther said. “It’s one of those things where you kind of black out.”

Had Strawther’s shot not gone in, the ghosts of 2006 would have been eerily similar. Gonzaga had played arguably one of the best second halves of Few’s long tenure to erase a 13-point lead and grab complete control of the game, surging to a 72-62 lead with 2:40 remaining.

The Zags had done it by fixing their defense and cleaning up their turnovers, but the most important reason they were in position to win was their toughness in the paint and on the glass, where they had a massive 50-26 edge. And the Bruins, who were short on bodies with injuries to Jaylen Clark and Adem Bona late in the season, eventually started to tire.

As UCLA slowly imploded, it almost seemed as if the Bruins put all their energy into the first half and had nothing left for the end. Shots that would normally go down for Jaime Jaquez or Tyger Campbell, the two senior stalwarts, improbably bounced out. By the end, 11 minutes of clock ticked away without UCLA making a basket.

And yet, just when this seemed like Gonzaga’s game, the craziness began. A shot clock violation. A couple bad fouls. A turnover in the backcourt. In the blink of an eye, UCLA was back within 75-73. With 25 seconds left, Drew Timme’s magnificent 36-point game seemed almost irrelevant as he clanked two free throws.

And when Bailey came back down, burying an open look to put UCLA back in front 76-75, it seemed like Morrison all over again.

“Initially, it’s just a human reaction. It was kind of like your shoulders drop. Like, no way,” Strawther said. “It felt like we got frantic down the stretch, and (giving up) a help, kick-out three when your up by two, you can’t believe it. But you got to have a next play mentality. And coach instantly called timeout and we ran over there and drew up the play and executed.”

Part of what seemed so shocking about Strawther taking that shot is that Gonzaga didn't need it. A layup would have worked just fine. So would a trip to the foul line. Also, by Strawther shooting so early, it gave UCLA a lot of time to come back and pour in a game-winner on top of them.

But so often in close NCAA tournament games, guards will drive into traffic in a way that ends tragically. Sometimes, the best shot is the first one that presents itself.

“It wasn’t a desperation shot,” Strawther said. "A shot attempt is better than a turnover. At the end of the day you have to get a shot on goal and that's the cleanest look like I feel like I could have got.”

So clean. So epic. So perfect.

And yet, there’s still so much more work to do for Gonzaga. A fourth Elite Eight appearance in the last six NCAA tournaments is a remarkable accomplishment. But making a Final Four or winning the school’s first national title would make Strawther's shot one of the most important in the history of the tournament. 

“One shining moment, I think that’s the best way to describe it,” Timme said. “Julian, man, he just took all of (Gonzaga) on his back and just buttered that thing. I can’t even really describe what he just did. It's crazy. It's just like that Jalen shot, man. I’m not speechless too much but I’m pretty speechless.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Julian Strawther authors epic March Madness moment in Sweet 16 win