Saturday’s first semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale encapsulated the topsy-turvy 2017 NCAA Tournament.
Top seeded heavyweight Gonzaga had to withstand a 16-point second half run from its Cinderella story opponent — from the SEC. South Carolina erased a 65-51 deficit in 3:13 of game time, then took a 67-65 lead with 7:06 remaining.
However, with fans of the other three teams raising the decibel level a veteran Gonzaga team quickly regained the lead and held on — thanks to the play of its reserve freshman center.
Zach Collins hit a three that bounced in awkwardly to make it 68-67. Then senior center Premek Karnowski punished the rim with a two-handed dunk. Collins worked a high-low to Karnowski for a layup and 72-67 lead forcing a South Carolina time out.
“I don’t know if we were worried but we were a little shocked. We knew our coaches were calm and we were calm. We’ve been in that position before so we were confident,” Collins said.
South Carolina did not go away, but could not tie it in the final four minutes. Collins stymied sophomore forward Chris Silva’s attempt to tie the game at 74, got fouled and made one for a 75-72 Bulldog advantage then picked up his sixth block of the game on senior point guard Duane Notice.
Gonzaga fouled with 3.5 seconds left to deny the Gamecocks a chance at a game-tying three and freshman Killian Tillie sank the final two free free throws to seal a 77-73 victory and the first title game appearance in school history.
“Well we’ve been practicing it all year. We always want to foul under six. I thought the guys did a great job. Josh Perkins did a great job of being really patient and not fouling on the shot. Then the second part is you’ve got to get the rebound and that’s what’s been difficult for us at times this year. But they executed late,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.
The Bulldogs controlled matters late in the first half and early in the second. However, No. 7 seed South Carolina went on a second half run that has become its tournament trademark.
Sophomore swingman P.J. Dozier started the rally in earnest with a block and hit three buckets. Sliva completed a three-point play and grabbed three offensive rebounds in the comeback.
Little used freshman Raykm Felder hit two free throws for his only points, and what turned out to be the Gamecocks last lead.
“They’re a special group of seniors that have been doing it for so long. That’s what you saw tonight and sometimes it’s not meant to be. We’d battle and take a lead and a young man that’s not a three-point shooter hits a shot that gets stuck on the back of the rim and then just trickles in. It just wasn’t meant to be,” South Carloina Coach Frank Martin said.
That unlikely three was Collins’ only attempt from distance but the seven-foot freshman did about all you could ask inside. He finished with 14 points and 13 rebounds to go with the six blocks.
Karnowski added 13 points and five boards in the paint. And junior point guard Nigel Williams-Goss was the offensive force of the night with a game high 23 points and six assists.
Dozier led South Carolina with 17 points, while Sliva added 13 points and 13 rebounds. Senior Sindarius Thornwell led the tournament in scoring at 26.5 points per game coming in but was limited to 15 on 4 of 11 shooting.
“It’s who we are. That’s why I’ve been so positive and so proud of these kids the whole year. Whether we win or lose, we’re so resillient. They don’t give in to the difficult moments and that’s the reason we’re on this platform tonight,” Coach Martin said.
The game kicked into gear in the final 7:30 of the first half with Gonzaga leading 24-21.
Both teams traded mini-runs punctuated by three-point shots, culminating in a Sliva block of Karnowski and reserve Justin McKie’s second trey of the half to tie it at 31 and force a Gonzaga time out at the 5:12 mark.
But senior guard Jordan Matthews quickly drained a three and the Bulldogs controlled the final five minutes.
Williams-Goss sank three jumpers to keep the Gamecocks at bay. Collins’ block of Hassani Gravett at the 1:52 mark sparked Gonzaga’s final push to a 45-36 advantage at the break.
“If I had my choice that’s exactly the game I would have chosen. I envisioned like 25-22,” Coach Few said. “I was disappointed in our transition defense. However, they shot 38 percent after the half, so sometimes our defense has a cumulative effect.”