The one thing missing from the Zags’ resume as a college basketball power was a spot in the Final Four, something the Bulldogs took care of by running through Xavier.
SAN JOSE — With a minute to go and Gonzaga’s long-awaited but oh-so-elusive regional title finally, blissfully secure, Mark Few pulled his starters out of the game, en masse. Then he hugged Nigel Williams-Goss, and all the emotion of this Zags breakthrough hit him with the force of a Przemek Karnowski screen.
“Tears, absolute tears of joy,’’ he would say afterward.
Few went down the line of players, hugging each one, thanking them for the sacrifices they had made, the “leap of faith,” in the case of transfers such as Williams-Goss, Jordan Mathews and Johnathan Williams, who gave up points and minutes to join Gonzaga.
National semifinal, East champion vs. Gonzaga (36-1) at Glendale, Ariz., TBA
And Few had one other message that he whispered to each jubilant player as they were in the process of celebrating the Zags’ 83-59 romp over Xavier: “We might as well win it all.”
Everything is possible for a Gonzaga team that looked every bit the powerhouse that many were unwilling to concede them to be. All day, Few said, he had a good feeling, quietly confident that this was the team to get them to the promised land.
He couldn’t help but reflect on the start of his Gonzaga journey, 28 years ago, long before Dan Monson started the Zags on one of the most unlikely rises in NCAA history in 1999, and before Few brought them to even greater heights in his 18 years as Monson’s successor.
“My first year on the staff, we won four Division I games,’’ he said incredulously. “I mean, this wasn’t even possible. And each year, we got better and better, and then we got really, really good.”
And now they’re legitimately great, no longer having to apologize for the conference they play in or the myth that they can’t win the big one. Xavier coach Chris Mack paid tribute to Gonzaga, lauding a defense that held one of the hottest teams in the tournament to 35.5 percent shooting, and an offense that can beat you from the outside if, as the Musketeers did, you try to take away the inside muscle of Karnowski and fellow 7-footer Zach Collins.
“Sometimes,’’ Mack said, “you just lose to a better team.”
That sentiment could be put on a continuous loop for a team that is now 36-1, its lone blemish a 79-71 loss to BYU. It’s enough to make a fellow dream as Gonzaga heads off to Phoenix for a semifinal matchup with either Florida or South Carolina.
“I’m so impressed with how Villanova did last year,’’ Few said. “And we’re going to take the same approach. But these guys don’t know any different. That’s how they’ve been all year. Basically, we’ve had about five or seven minutes of not very good basketball, where we got away from what we’ve done against BYU, or we’d be looking at 37-0 right now.”
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When Xavier hit a six-game losing streak in February, Mack held a ritual in the locker room during practice one day. He gave each player a calendar of February, and then threw each page in a trash can and burned it. The ashes were placed in an urn purchased at Wal-Mart, and hauled to each practice and game as a reminder to look forward, not backward.
Gonzaga can now symbolically burn all the postseason disappointments of prior years, even though it was never fair to have them obscure the monumental achievements of the program. Certainly, the roll call of past players — the Dickaus and Morrisons and Turiafs and Olynyks and Pangoses and Bells — who fell just short was front and center as the Zags went through the happy ritual of cutting down the net.
Guard Josh Perkins went on the radio after the game with Matt Santangelo, now one of their broadcasters after playing on the ’99 team that first put Gonzaga on the map.
“I told him, ‘Man, your team started this for us,’ ’’ Perkins said. “Without them, some people might not be in the locker room.”
“Our culture is just so strong,’’ Few said. “And this was a culture win and a culture statement, and I couldn’t be prouder.”
Gonzaga’s players, one after another, said they couldn’t be happier for Few, who no longer has to endure the endless questions about getting to the Final Four. Few has been steadfast in saying that he wanted to do it for his players, past and present, not for himself. But there was no question the victory was deeply felt.
“Now that we’ve delivered on it, I mean, it’s just a total, total feeling of elation and happiness for these guys,’’ he said. “It just makes your heart warm to like 350 degrees Celsius or something. Maybe it’s Fahrenheit. It’s been awhile since I’ve been in class.”
Gonzaga guard Silas Melson watched Few’s postgame television interview in which he lauded the team and his family but deflected praise for himself.
“Coach deserves it,’’ Melson said. “Third-fastest to 500 wins, and people just totally blow that away because he hasn’t been to a Final Four. But they can’t say that no more. He puts everyone before himself, because that’s who he is. But also everyone knows Coach Few is happy on the inside. That’s a big milestone for him.”
Someone asked Mathews if the victory validated the Gonzaga program.
“Definitely not,’’ he answered firmly. “Gonzaga’s been a big-time program for 20 years now. People look at Gonzaga. They know what it is. They know what Bulldog means.
“It’s not validation now that they’ve made a Final Four. Look at the past great teams, great players. … the Final Four doesn’t validate or discredit a season. It’s not an end-all be-all. Gonzaga has been a great program, and we’re just happy to keep carrying the torch.”
Sitting near Mathews on the podium, Few nodded his head.
“Amen, brother,’’ he said.
|History in Elite Eight games|
|Gonzaga has appeared in 19 straight NCAA tournaments, but this is the Bulldogs’ first trip to the Final Four. A look at how they have fared in Elite Eight games:|
|Year||W-L||NCAA seed||Elite Eight opponent||Result|
|2017||36-1||1||No. 11 seed Xavier||Win, 83-59|
|2015||35-3||2||No. 1 seed Duke||Loss, 66-52|
|1999||28-7||10||No. 1 seed Connecticut||Loss, 67-62|