Przemek Karnowski breaks loose for 18 points, nine rebounds in beating UCLA 74-62

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HOUSTON — When it was over Friday night, a euphoric Gonzaga player spied Przemek Karnowski striding off the floor and looked ready to mount a serious chest-bump.

Then, either realizing there’s more basketball to play, or that Karnowski is 7 feet 1 and 300 pounds, he geared down and delivered only a kinda-sorta love tap to the big fella.

When the Zags’ options in the NCAA Sweet 16 were go big or go home, they turned to Karnowski, and finally denied UCLA, 74-62, to reach their first Elite Eight since the program’s whole improbable run began in 1999.

SOUTH REGIONAL  Gonzaga 74, UCLA 62   Duke 63, Utah 57

EAST REGIONAL   Louisville 75, N.C. St. 65  Mich. St. 62, Okla. 58

The poll has expired. Thank you for your submissions.

“Ever since I’ve been here, you always hear about the Elite Eight team, the Elite Eight team,” mused guard Kevin Pangos. “Now you have to say, ‘Which team are you talking about?’ That’s kind of cool.”

Gonzaga publicists always have billed the school as a wellspring of guards, but when the Zags advanced to a regional final in 1999, it was big guy Casey Calvary’s tip against Florida that got them there. This night, in the sluggish atmosphere of a yawning domed football stadium, they went back to an old reliable inside-out game and it allowed Gonzaga to go where only one of its predecessors had gone before.

About the time the Zags made their last Sweet 16, in 2009, is when Karnowski figures he began watching the NCAA tournament in Poland. So he’s been spared a lot of the angst that has attended Gonzaga’s struggles advancing.

He took matters into his own hands against the Bruins, scoring a game-high 18 points, collaring nine rebounds and dropping two gorgeous feeds to Domas Sabonis for easy baskets, one behind the back.

“  ‘Magic’ Przemek,” said Gary Bell Jr. “That’s what coach (Donny) Daniels calls him.”

Not erased, but at least suppressed, was the night in the Oakland Coliseum in 2006, when the Zags caved in the last 3½ minutes to lose to UCLA and a berth in the Elite Eight.

That was then, and this is now, and the Bruins aren’t that team, and the Zags are better than they were then.

Sunday

Gonzaga vs. Duke, 2:05 p.m., Ch. 7

“Listen,” said Tommy Lloyd, the Gonzaga assistant coach. “We’re right where we expected to be. That’s honest, that’s not lip service. It’s different when you’re expected to be somewhere, or just happy to be there. We expected to be here.”

It’s been said the Zags are a team with a variety of ways to beat you. Apparently, that includes ugly. They made only 3 of 19 threes, their worst output behind the stripe all year, and they were far from their nation-leading field-goal percentage selves at 40.3 percent.

But ultimately they did a lot of things right, including defending 11th-seeded UCLA well and registering 15 assists to five turnovers.

Despite Bruin guard Norman Powell’s early drives, the Zags seemed to have a handle on things, with an 11-point first-half lead. But UCLA melted a 35-28 halftime deficit with a 6-0 run in the first two minutes of the second half, prompting a timeout from Gonzaga coach Mark Few.

He preached better ball-screen coverage and more offensive focus on his big men.

On the first Zag possession, Bell found himself double-teamed on the baseline from about 8 feet. Seemingly with no recourse, he flipped up a shot that went in.

Suddenly, the Zags (35-2) were off on a 12-0 run, with Karnowski bedeviling the Bruins with three short hoops. The Bruins spent the rest of the night chasing.

“Keep riding those guys when they’re playing like that,” Bell said of Karnowski and Sabonis, who added 12 points on 6-for-9 shooting. “It’d be kind of stupid not to give them the ball.”

So for the Zags, it was a more methodical campaign than a mercurial one. It was death by kilogram for the Bruins (22-14), most of them applied by Karnowski.

The Gonzaga bigs — that’s an apt term — keyed a 50-39 rebounding advantage.

It all went down in only vaguely a basketball milieu, one in which Few coached from a stool, sort of, and benches are 3 feet below the elevated floor.

“I didn’t use it,” said Few, who knelt instead. “I didn’t feel comfortable on the stool. The players on the bench, they’re excited, but I don’t think the energy is transpiring to the energy on the floor. It’s kind of a delayed response.

“Same as the crowd noise. It just kind of rolls.”

So the surroundings were something new to the Zags, much like their surge through the bracket. They’ll take it.