DENVER – Unlike earlier in the day when impartial fans at the Pepsi Center provided double-digit seeds Morehead State and Richmond with rousing support, those not wearing Gonzaga colors appeared unmoved by the Zags’ upset bid in Thursday’s nightcap.
Maybe a pro-BYU crowd didn’t consider 11th-seeded Gonzaga a sufficient underdog to warrant that kind of backing. More likely Cougars fans were wise enough to realize the bigger, stronger Zags posed a far greater threat to BYU in the next round than undersized St. John’s.
By the time Gonzaga finished off an impressive 86-71 opening-round victory over the sixth-seeded Johnnies, it was impossible not to take the surging Zags seriously as a Sweet 16 threat.
They won the rebounding battle by a whopping 43-20. They outscored St. John’s in the paint 34-24. And they punished the Johnnies whenever they collapsed their defense in the paint, sinking a blistering 9 of 15 from behind the 3-point arc.
“They were a good team, but it wasn’t really an upset to us,” Gonzaga center Robert Sacre said. “I don’t think we get enough credit. Throughout the whole year, everyone’s doubted us, but we’ve had our blinders on, stayed focused and kept grinding away.”
That Gonzaga is one win away from a spot in the Sweet 16 is a momentous accomplishment considering how unlikely it once seemed that the Zags would make the NCAA tournament.
Gonzaga sputtered to a 4-5 start and endured an ill-timed three-game losing streak in the middle of conference play, but the Zags closed the season with nine straight victories to earn their 13th consecutive NCAA tournament berth.
The opening-round matchup Gonzaga drew against St. John’s appeared to be one of the most intriguing of the day as a result of the contrast between the Johnnies’ speed and athleticism and the Zags’ size and skill. Instead Gonzaga maintained a double-digit lead for the final 19 minutes, setting up a game with a depleted BYU team that may be even less equipped than St. John’s to deal with a formidable frontline.
Even though the Johnnies would have relished the chance to face the third-seeded Cougars, simply making the NCAA tournament for the first time in nine years was a significant accomplishment. The nine-man senior class that fueled this dream season will be remembered for turning around the St. John’s program and paving the way for the arrival of a top-five recruiting class next fall.
“While losing in the NCAA tournament is heartbreaking, when they get out a month, a year, five years from now, they’re going to look back and realize they brought St. John’s basketball back,” coach Steve Lavin said.
Gonzaga may not have been achieved as much as St. John’s in the regular season, but few teams are hotter than the Zags in March. The key to the turnaround has been increased contributions from players besides Sacre and guard Steven Gray.
Guard Marquise Carter, sparingly used throughout the first half of the season, was named MVP of the WCC tournament last week and scored a game-high 24 points on Thursday night. Walk-on point guard David Stockton has gradually emerged as a steadying influence off the bench. And reserve forward Sam Dower has provided scoring when given the opportunity.
Maybe the biggest difference between the Gonzaga of March and the Gonzaga of December, however, is the play of highly touted sophomore forward Elias Harris.
Injuries and diminished production sapped Harris’ confidence in the first half of the season, but the versatile 6-foot-7 forward’s return to form has coincided with Gonzaga’s second-half renaissance. Harris tallied 15 points Thursday, the ninth time in 10 games that he has scored in double figures.
“I’m not going to lie, there was a lot of pressure on me at the beginning of the season,” said Harris, who was touted as a potential first-round draft pick. “I think that’s something I took to heart. My head was getting all crazy and I was losing confidence.
“But the last six, seven, eight weeks, I’m playing like last year. I know what I’m capable of. I know I can play basketball, so I’m just going for it.”
So is Gonzaga, which has silenced its critics and will take aim at its second Sweet 16 in three seasons on Saturday.
“If you had told me a few months ago I’d have this opportunity to play a game to get to the Sweet 16, I’d have done anything for that opportunity,” Gray said. “It’s definitely a great feeling. I’m really excited to have this chance.”