Sure, the referees made some questionable calls, but the Zags lost the national title game to North Carolina by failing to hold onto the ball, block out and shoot well.
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Sometimes, it’s better to just lose by 30. Sometimes, knowing you weren’t the better team makes the loss more palatable.
Gonzaga just completed its greatest season in program history, which would normally leave its players beaming. But after a 71-65 loss to North Carolina, it’s more likely that they’re steaming.
There was so much to be frustrated about Monday night. From ridiculously tight (and sometimes laughable) officiating, to uncharacteristically bad shooting — the Zags weren’t hanging their heads in defeat so much as they were shaking them.
“I don’t think any of us think we played our best game,” said Gonzaga point guard Nigel Williams-Goss, who was fighting back tears after the loss. “And that hurts.”
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Adding to the pain is the fact the Zags started off so well. With 2:50 left in the first half, they held a seven-point lead.
Josh Perkins was hitting every open three-pointer he saw. Williams-Goss was slashing through the Tar Heel D and finding open teammates. It was as aesthetically pleasing as it was entertaining.
Then it got ugly. Real ugly.
Honestly, when was the last time you heard so many whistles in such a high-profile game? When was the last time there were 27 personal fouls in the second half?
The refs weren’t necessarily biased — Gonzaga and UNC each finished with 22 fouls.
But many of the calls were questionable and seemed to affect the Zags more adversely.
Take Zach Collins, for example.
With 15:53 remaining in the game, the Gonzaga big man was looking for the ball and made what seemed to be a normal move in the post.
He ended up being called for his fourth foul despite replay showing minimal contact. Two days earlier, Collins tallied 14 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks in a win over South Carolina. Monday, he fouled out in a mere 14 minutes.
“Sometimes you feel like you don’t know how to play basketball when that stuff happens. You learn how to do one thing your whole life, and then get called for a foul,” Collins said. “That’s not taking a shot at the refs, that’s just me not realizing the situation.”
Still, you couldn’t help but notice the officials getting more airtime than the players in the second half. You couldn’t help but observe that, with the Zags down by one with less than two minutes to go, the refs called a jump ball that gave the Tar Heels possession despite UNC’s Kennedy Meeks’ hand being out of bounds.
Even LeBron James vented his frustration, tweeting “I can’t watch this anymore man! I would like to see the kids decide who wins this game!” And despite players and coaches taking the high road on officiating questions, the Zags had to be irked.
But they also had to be irked with how they performed. Gonzaga started the second half up 35-32 but were down 40-35 two minutes and 20 seconds later.
They couldn’t hang on to the ball — committing 14 turnovers to North Carolina’s four. They couldn’t block out — giving up eight offensive rebounds in the second half. But mainly, they couldn’t shoot — as they finished the game 20 of 59 from the field and 17 of 26 from the free-throw line.
Perhaps the most glaring stat line belonged to seven-foot center Przemek Karnowski, who entered the game averaging 12.3 points while shooting .597 from the field.
Monday, he was 1 for 8.
Przemek, in your last game as a college athlete, what will be the one thing you remember forever about it?”
“That I missed a lot of layups,” he said.
Despite all their struggles, the Zags still held a two-pint lead with 1:53 to go after Williams-Goss knocked down a jumper. But then UNC’s Justin Jackson hit a jump shot, and then the controversial jump-ball call took place, and then Meeks knocked down a shot to put the Tar Heels up by three.
Gonzaga never scored again.
After the game, Zags coach Mark Few acknowledged that losing so closely was a “temporarily crushing blow.” But he also said that perspective will come in time.
He’s probably right. But it’s going to take a while.
The Zags have never had a better season, but this might end up being their toughest offseason.