A dream season looked like it was quickly headed towards a nightmare finish today in Salt Lake City. While the prior sentence may be slightly dramatic, I'm sure everything Gonzaga fan thought at some point today "is this really going to happen?". For the past few days, many Zag fans had heard the familiar saying "a No. 1 seed has never lost to a 16, will Gonzaga be the first?". As time wound down today in Salt Lake City, three-quarters of the arena was believing that it would happen. The upstart Southern Jaguars put together an incredible game and were throwing haymakers at the Bulldogs. Behind the strong second half of Kelly Olynyk and some big-time late shots from their backcourt, Gonzaga survived to play another game.
It was clear from the start of the game that Southern wasn't about to be intimidated by the fact that Gonzaga had No. 1 next to their name. The Jaguars quickly fell behind 7-0 in the first moments of the game as many GU fans were thinking that this would be an easy W. Southern had other ideas as they fought back right away and put together an 8-0 run of their own and never let the Bulldogs breathe until the final buzzer sounded. Derick Beltran was the star of the show for Southern as he scored 21 points on 4-8 shooting from deep. Beltran hit a number of big time shots that looked to be impossible - it was that type of day for the Jaguars. In total, Southern finished 10-23 from beyond the arc.
For the Zags, points did not necessarily come easily. As their stats clearly indicated they would, Southern slowed the pace down. Gonzaga only scored 64 points as they shot 42% from the floor. The officials called the came excruciatingly tight at times as the Bulldogs finished with 16 fouls to Southern's 12. Luckily for the Zags, they had Kelly Olynyk and Kevin Pangos. Olynyk was true to his All-American form in the second half. The hulking Canadian finished with 21 points, 17 of which came in the second half. Mark Few did a nice job designing plays to get Olynyk open off pick-and-rolls and Olynyk did his part knocking down open jumpers.
While Olynyk was the star, it was fantastic seeing Kevin Pangos and his counterpart Gary Bell Jr. hitting big shots. Bell made a huge three in rhythm to break a 56-56 tie with three minutes and then Pangos hit what would be the dagger with two minutes left to give the Bulldogs a four-point lead.
There has already been plenty of reaction and overreaction to today's win over Southern. The prevalent rhetoric has been 'told you they didn't deserve a 1 seed'. Instead, as someone who knows just how good this team is, I tend to believe this was a perfect game to get the Bulldogs back in sync. After a long layoff, some rust was expected and Southern popped them in the mouth. As we've said in the past, this was a game when I think past Gonzaga teams lose because they lack the mental fortitude. All the credit in the world should go to Southern but I would be shocked if we don't see a much better effort from the Bulldogs on Saturday against Wichita State.
With that said, Wichita is another team that will want to grind it out, go slow, and take their time. The Zags absolutely need to force the pace or we are going to be looking at another very frustrating game.