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GLENDALE, Ariz. — With suddenly wobbly Gonzaga in desperate need of a basket after surrendering 16 straight second-half points, freshman center Zach Collins spotted up at the top of the key and confidently called for the ball.
The shot that saved his team’s season felt wrong from the moment it left his hands.
“I thought it was way off,” Collins said. “It completely bricked. It was probably the ugliest shot I’ve ever taken.”
Somehow, someway, the ball deadened on the back rim and rolled in, the extremely fortunate break Gonzaga needed to regain control of a Final Four game that appeared to be slipping away. Collins’ go-ahead 3-pointer put his team back in front for good and sparked the late surge that thwarted South Carolina’s latest upset bid and enabled the Zags to escape with a 77-73 victory.
“I don’t know how it bounced in,” Collins said. “I’ve never seen a shot like that go in, but I’m happy it did.”
Gonzaga would not be playing for its first national title on Monday night without Collins, who turned in by far the most complete performance of his career on college basketball’s biggest stage. The 7-foot McDonald’s All-American scored 14 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and swatted away six shots, an effort so impressive that it instantly called into question the oft-repeated notion that this is a Final Four without a one-and-done prospect.
While Gonzaga has dabbled with playing Collins and fellow 7-footer Przemek Karnowski at the same time this season, the Zags have typically shied away from it for more than a few minutes here and there. Most opponents have at least one mobile big man who’s an easier cover for quicker, more agile forwards Johnathan Williams and Killian Tillie.
South Carolina was the exception to that rule as the Gamecocks started true big men Chris Silva and Maik Kotsar, neither one of whom are a threat to drive or score away from the rim. As a result, the Gonzaga staff chose to play Karnowski and Collins at the same time more often than ever before, hoping the twin towers look would provide the rim protection and rebounding the Zags needed to stifle a Gamecocks team that relies on attacking the basket and the offensive glass.
“They didn’t have a skilled guy where Collins was going to be chasing on the perimeter or forced into a situation where he was going to be switching a lot of ball screens,” Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd said. “We felt like we could go toe-to-toe with them and not have to adjust anything.”
The stretches when Karnowski and Collins were on the floor together were some of Gonzaga’s best. They repeatedly found one another for high-low baskets, none bigger than the Karnowski layup that put the Zags up five with 4:49 to go and capped the 7-0 spurt that followed Collins’ fortuitous 3-pointer.
Effective as both were on offense, it was their ability to alter shots at the rim that helped Gonzaga hold South Carolina to 37.9 percent shooting.
The sheer mass and consistent verticality of Karnowski makes him an effective rim protector. The long-armed, bouncy-legged Collins found success a different way, displaying impeccable timing as a shot blocker.
Never was that more apparent than in the final two minutes when Collins swallowed up a layup attempt by guard Rakym Felder, leaving South Carolina coach Frank Martin to shout, “Rak! They’re too big! Stop!” Sindarius Thornwell didn’t get the message because Collins swatted away his driving layup attempt on the ensuing possession.
“That just shows how versatile Zach Collins is,” Gonzaga guard Silas Melson said. “He’s a beast. That obviously helped us out because teams aren’t ready for two 7-footers like that.”
Since Collins is the first McDonald’s All-American Gonzaga has ever landed out of high school, it’s tempting to portray him as a monument to the progress the Zags have made since their Cinderella days of the late 1990s and early 2000s. In reality, the late-blooming Collins didn’t blossom into an elite prospect until after he had already pledged to Gonzaga in March of his junior year.
Overshadowed at Las Vegas Bishop Gorman High School by McDonald’s All-Americans Chase Jeter and Stephen Zimmerman, Collins didn’t even start until his senior season. Collins showed flashes of immense potential on the AAU circuit as a sophomore before shutting it down after learning that he had been playing on a broken tibia.
Learning to be patient proved unexpectedly useful at Gonzaga because the path to a starting job wasn’t as clear as Collins once anticipated. Karnowski sat out nearly all of what was supposed to be his senior season with back problems last year, enabling him to apply for a medical redshirt that made him eligible to play one more season.
That might have caused friction at other programs. Not at Gonzaga, where there’s a culture of sacrificing individual stats to ensure team success.
“It wasn’t really hard at all,” Collins said. “I’m a freshman playing 17 or 18 minutes per game on what was at one point the No. 1 team in the nation and we’ve won 37 games. There’s not a lot to be mad about with that. Przemek’s a great player. We don’t get this far without Przemek. I was really happy he came back.”
The way Collins played with Gonzaga’s season at stake, don’t be surprised to see him on the floor again late in Monday’s national championship game if the matchups are favorable.
The beauty of Gonzaga’s four-headed frontcourt is they all provide something different, from Karnowski’s size and skill, to Collins’ athleticism and rim protection, to Johnathan Williams’ mobility and defensive versatility, to Killian Tillie’s energy and hustle.
It was Collins’ chance to shine Saturday. And on the biggest stage in college basketball, he led Gonzaga within 40 minutes of a national title.
“It’s moments like this why I chose to come here,” Collins said. “This coaching staff is amazing and I knew with the talent they brought in this year, we could be something special.”
More Final Four coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Why Geno Auriemma was smiling as UConn’s 111-game win streak ended
• South Carolina’s Frank Martin breaks down after his team’s Final Four loss
• Here’s the best reaction to MSU’s historic upset win over UConn
• Gonzaga coach, 54, celebrates win with handstand
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