For 35 minutes, Gonzaga was so close to its first Final Four appearance. Then came a season-ending offensive drought, something the Zags had rarely experienced.

Share story

HOUSTON — The basketball coach who has won all you can win leaped into the air, pumped his fists and screamed like the happiest child at the playground. Mike Krzyzewski has reacted to national championships with less emotion. This moment was too wonderful to downplay, however.

Duke guard Matt Jones had just made a three-pointer.

Early in the second half.

To give the Blue Devils a three-point lead over Gonzaga.

It was a telling reaction. Coach K knew Duke was in a dogfight, not a mismatch, not a game that separated a super power from an overachiever. As two terrific basketball teams labored for difficult baskets, there was no caste system, just a tough competition that made you appreciate every possession.

The poll has expired. Thank you for your submissions.

That’s why Krzyzewski went airborne over a 34-31 score with 18:07 remaining. Gonzaga had Duke’s attention, respect and fear. But in the end, the Zags couldn’t take the Final Four from the Blue Devils, too.

Gonzaga fell five minutes short of history.

And a riveting South Regional final fell five minutes short of greatness.

For 35 minutes, we were headed for a classic, if not always pretty, game. For 35 minutes, Gonzaga was so close to its first Final Four appearance. Then came a season-ending offensive drought, something the Zags had rarely experienced.

It began with Kyle Wiltjer missing an easy layup that would’ve tied the score at 53 with 4:48 remaining. It didn’t end until Duke was celebrating a 66-52 victory at NRG Stadium, and Coach K was hugging Gonzaga point guard Kevin Pangos and praising the senior for his remarkable college career.

As the Blue Devils stood on a stage at midcourt and accepted their South Regional championship trophy, Krzyzewski addressed the crowd and acknowledged the team that made him feel like every made field goal was a triumph.

“This is a magical moment for us,” Krzyzewski said, “but we played a magical team in Gonzaga.”

The Bulldogs finished with a 35-3 record, the best in program history. The senior backcourt of Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. posted a 122-20 mark to become Gonzaga’s most successful class. In four years, they helped the Zags win six NCAA tournament games, started on the 2012-13 squad that earned Gonzaga’s first No. 1 seed and finished with this Elite Eight run, only the school’s second ever and their first since 1999.

This run was not the surprise journey of a Cinderella. It was the culmination of a difficult process to add glory to an established program. Gonzaga heard the critics after it lost in the round of 32 for five consecutive years. It listened to discussion of whether the program had peaked. It endured the ho-hum response to its consistency and dealt with being victims of its success.

Through it all, coach Mark Few and the program continued to evolve, subtly. The defense and rebounding improved. They recruited players with better athleticism. They added the versatility to win in different ways, and they still maintained the offensive prowess that defines Gonzaga basketball.

The Zags were a true national title contender this season, not just a threat to beat a few big-name programs. It took an inspired defensive performance from Duke to hold Gonzaga to 44 percent shooting. The Zags’ defense wound up holding Duke to 37.5 percent, and they out-rebounded Duke 35-31 and held possible No. 1 overall NBA draft pick Jahlil Okafor to nine points on 4-for-10 shooting.

The Blue Devils made six of their first eight shots — and then Gonzaga limited them to 31.3 percent the rest of the game. The Zags accomplished most of what they needed to win, but Duke made eight three-pointers to the Zags’ two. And Duke committed just three turnovers. Gonzaga committed 13 and had just eight assists.

The Zags led 38-34 after Byron Wesley made a free throw to complete a three-point play with 16:20 remaining. They scored a mere 14 points the rest of the game. They missed 11 of their final 17 shots and committed seven turnovers during the stretch.

If you look at just the final five minutes, Gonzaga missed its final five shots and turned the ball over twice. It was as if Wiltjer’s missed layup deflated the Final Four bid.

“He would make that thing 499 times out of 500,” Few said. “Just a fluke, and there’s nobody on the team we’d rather have taking it other than him.”

On Gonzaga’s next possession, Pangos missed an open three-pointer that he usually makes. For once, the Zags’ beautiful offense was sputtering.

“When that happens, you just kind of got to shake your head, and it’s not your night,” Few said.

Duke’s athleticism and quickness on defense was a factor. Led by freshman Justise Winslow and senior Quinn Cook, the Blue Devils made the Zags uncomfortable. When good shots were available, Gonzaga wasn’t in a rhythm to make them. It was a choppy game that way.

So the Zags must say goodbye to this incredible season.

“It’s the best team I’ve ever been on, talent-wise,” Pangos said.

“It’s meant everything,” Bell said.

“I’m just fortunate to have been on this wonderful team,” Wiltjer said.

But Final Four opportunities are so fleeting. Gonzaga was five minutes away — and went cold. The disappointment will linger.

So will Duke’s relief.

With 36.7 seconds left and the game in hand, Coach K jumped again, not as high this time. He pumped his fists again. And finally, he turned, pointed and yelled into the crowd. Krzyzewski didn’t dare take clinching his 12th Final Four appearance for granted. He couldn’t.

He understood what a feat it was to beat this Gonzaga team.

Opportunity missed
Gonzaga was trying to claw back into Sunday’s game, trailing 53-51 with less than five minutes to go, when Przemek Karnowski flipped a pass underneath to an open Kyle Wiltjer, who missed the layup. What happened after that:
Scoring play Time Score
Justise Winslow two FTs 4:33 55-51, Duke
Winslow two FTs 3:38 57-51, Duke
Winslow three-pointer 2:49 60-51, Duke
Byron Wesley makes one of two FTs 2:26 60-52, Duke
Quinn Cook two FTs 1:18 62-52, Duke
Cook two FTs 0:56 64-52, Duke
Matt Jones layup 0:44 66-52, Duke
THE DUKE RUN 13-1 to end game