Gonzaga led by 14 points with about 11 minutes remaining. For many opponents against the powerful Bulldogs, that would be that.
But South Carolina isn’t like many opponents. The Gamecocks kicked into NCAA Tournament mode, battled all the way back and then some, setting up a thrilling finish.
But the Bulldogs gutted out a 77-73 triumph, and will attempt to become the first team since Connecticut in 1999 to win the national championship in their first Final Four appearance.
“I don’t know if I can come up with a statement that can describe this game,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “Just an awesome basketball game.”
That came down to a decision by Gonzaga to foul with a three-point lead.
The Bulldogs led 75-72 with 12.7 seconds remaining after Nigel Williams-Goss missed a jumper. The Gamecocks took a timeout, and it seemed logical that Southeastern Conference player of the year Sindarius Thornwell would get a touch.
The ball swung to Thornwell, but before he could hoist a shot from in front of the South Carolina bench, the Bulldogs’ Josh Perkins reached out and fouled Thornwell on the arm with 3.5 seconds remaining.
“We’ve been practicing it all year,” Few said. “We always want to foul under 6 (seconds). Josh did a great job of being really patient and not fouling on the shot.”
Thornwell made the first shot. Two-point game. If he made the second, there wouldn’t have been enough time to foul and get it back.
So Thronwell missed, and here South Carolina appeared to catch a break. The rebound was corralled by Gonzaga’s Killian Tillie, a freshman who had just entered the game for the first time in the second half. But Tillie, an 84-percent three-point shooter, made both ends of the bonus. Four-point lead. Game over.
The South Carolina comeback fell short, but it was breathtaking as it unfolded. From 14 points down, the Gamecocks scored the next 16 and took a 67-65 lead on Rakym Felder’s two three throws with 7:06 remaining.
Thornwell had been battling the flu this week and wasn’t at full strength early, and still South Carolina had put itself in a position to win. This had been the Gamecocks’ habit throughout the postseason. They had trailed in three of their four NCAA games and roared back, including a 65-point second half against Duke in the second round.
“That’s what they’ve done the whole year,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said. “We’ve gotten put on our backs a couple of times. But we don’t lay there. We figure out a way to get off our backs and fight to the end.”
But Gonzaga had an answer — reserve freshman big man Zach Collins.
In what became the biggest possession of the game, Collins stepped back and dropped in lead-regaining three-pointer off the backboard. The big bearded one, Przemek Karnowski followed with two straight baskets, one off a nifty pass from Collins, and the Bulldogs appeared back in control.
If Williams-Goss with 23 points, wasn’t the player of the game, it was Collins. He finished with 14 points, 13 rebounds and a season-best six blocked shots.
Collins final blocked shot helped maintain a three-point lead with 1:21 remaining. He had four fouls at the time.
“That’s my job to go to the rim and protect,” Collins said. “I try to protect without fouling.”
Collins played 23 minutes and logged a few in the first half after Karnowski went out after getting poked in the eye. Karnowski crumbled to the floor and the first person to check on him was South Carolina’s Martin.
“I had blurry vision, a little bit of a shadow,” Karnowski said.
But Gonzaga saw the final few moments of this game perfectly with a well-timed foul and ideal execution and now moves on to play for the national championship.
The program that is labeled a mid-major and acts and plays like a major, seeks to finish the deal and give Few one more opportunity to turn a handstand in the locker room. The cameras caught him after Saturday’s victory.
“I felt like I stuck it,” he said. “They’re always on me to show emotion, so that’s my fairly weak effort of showing emotion.”