Gonzaga’s veteran guards were no where to be found on Saturday night.
Johnathan Williams? He spent most of the night in foul trouble, while Killian Tillie looked like a shell of the player that had made Las Vegas his playground during the WCC tournament.
Those four players — the stars of this Gonzaga team, the veteran leaders that were supposed to carry this iteration of the Zags as far as they will go — combined for just 34 points against No. 5-seed Ohio State in the second round of the NCAA tournament, but the Zags still managed to hold off the Buckeyes and advance to the Sweet 16 with a 90-84 win. They led by as many as 15 points in the first half and blew a 13-point half time lead before a late 13-0 run earned them the win.
And it is all thanks to Rui Hachimura and Zach Norvell.
Hachimura is the highlight reel. He finished with 25 points and five boards despite the fact that he shot missed six from the free throw on Saturday night, but the shots — and plays — that he made down the stretch were massive. There was the three with just under four minutes left at the end of the shot clock to push Gonzaga’s lead back to six points after they had completely blown a 13-point halftime advantage. There was the block on Ohio State star Keita Bates-Diop a couple of possessions, when it looked like he was going to score at the rim on a bucket that would have ended a Gonzaga run. He even helped break Ohio State’s press in the final minutes, as the Buckeyes were trying to rally in the final minutes.
But Norvell was the star, and it started early. The redshirt freshman from Chicago got hot early, hitting a couple of threes as the Zags jumped out to a 13-0 lead that they maintained for much of the first 20 minutes. The shot that everyone will remember, however, was a step-back three from deep in the corner with less than two minutes left on the clock that put the Zags up seven and lets the partisan Boise crowd breathe a sign of relief after a tense, strenuous second half.
And with that, the Zags were back in the Sweet 16 a season after they reached their first Final Four and national title game.
Frankly, I think that the way that this season has played out says more about the strength of the Gonzaga program than last year’s run to the final weekend did.
We’ve known for years just how good Gonzaga is. They were a No. 1 seed before. They’ve been the No. 1 team in the country heading into the NCAA tournament. They’ve been on the national radar for two decades. They send players to the NBA. Just because they hadn’t been able to find a way to win four games in an event as fluky and exciting as the NCAA tournament doesn’t tell me anything beyond the fact that they got unlucky a couple of times when they were good enough to do it.
As the saying goes — and as Tony Bennett, Sean Miller and Chris Mack can attest — you’re only the best to never do it until you do it, and then you’re just ‘the best’.
But this group was without two key seniors from last year’s team. They also last two players that could have been all-americans to early entry when freshman Zach Collins and junior Nigel Williams-Goss both declared for the NBA Draft.
It takes a special kind of a program to withstand an unexpected hit like that and still field a roster capable of being a top four seed and getting to the Sweet 16.
And don’t, for a second, think that they are done.
We’ve seen what this team can get out of Hachimura and Norvell.
We know what Perkins, and Melson, and Tillie and Williams are capable of.
A trip to San Antonio could be in the cards.
Some might tell you they’re the favorite to get there out of the West.
But even if they don’t, just remember what this team was able to accomplish after what they lost.
It tells you all you need to know about Gonzaga basketball.