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2017 NCAA Tournament: Gonzaga digs deep to advance to Elite 8

Jordan Mathews hits THE SHOT and the Zags survive Press Virginia with a 61-58 win.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-West Regional-Gonzaga vs West Virginia Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Most of it wasn’t pretty, but Gonzaga is in its second Elite 8 in three years and will play for the program’s first Final Four berth on Saturday night.

It was a game of contrasting styles, although you could probably say that about West Virginia and any team it plays, as no one plays quite like the Mountaineers.

Going into this game, most fans expected a physical and defensive affair with both teams ranked in the Top 5 of KenPom’s defensive efficiency rankings. All those expectations were met as the two teams battled in an absolute grinder that surely left both squads completely spent when it was all over.

The Zags started off the evening looking like a team that was well-prepared for Press Virginia. There was a clear plan in place to deal with the fullcourt trap, and Gonzaga did not look overwhelmed by West Virginia’s defenders. However, it’s one thing not to be overwhelmed, and it’s another thing to fight the mental and physical fatigue of playing it for 40 minutes.

Gonzaga jumped out to a modest lead and held it for the majority of the half, but the Zags certainly had to feel like they left several buckets on the table when they went into the half. Thanks to a handful of missed opportunities, way too many offensive rebounds conceded, and an avalanche of foul calls from Jamie Luckie (perhaps the most astute referee in the history of refereeing as to what is not a foul) & Co. that landed the entire team in trouble, the Zags limped into the break with one made field goal to their name in the final eight minutes of the half.

While the score may have been tied 30-30 at the break, we were all losers for getting subjected to an unnecessary free-throw parade in the game’s first 20 minutes. 27 combined fouls that led to 37 combined free throws led to an almost unwatchable game. Throw in the vaunted defenses holding each other to 37.5% (Gonzaga) and 22.6% (West Virginia) shooting respectively, and it’s easy to sum up the first half in a single word: woof.

Anyone hoping the second half would provide a different storyline was disappointed at the outset, as the opening minutes featured the same plodding, whistle-strewn elements that marred the first half.

But then, the game started to open up with Jordan Mathews hitting back-to-back 3s only to be answered by Jevon Carter. Considering how the game had been going, it would be fair to describe that one minute of play as a veritable offensive explosion.

The offensive explosion didn’t last long, and it did not strike Nigel Williams-Goss, as the Cousy Award finalist struggled throughout the evening, failing to find a rhythm against West Virginia’s relentless pressure and the disjointed nature of the game. However, the junior point guard was picked up by his fellow upperclassmen in Karnowski, Mathews, and Williams.

Karnowski anchored the Zags as the wheels looked like they were about to come off, especially when the referees blew a big out-of-bounds call and then spent 40 years in the desert reconsidering the review. But the biggest praise of the night goes to Jordan Mathews who struck with the biggest shot of the night—and perhaps one of the biggest shots in program history—when he sank a 3 in transition to push Gonzaga to a 60-58 lead with under one minute left.

The final 45 seconds of the game was frenetic, with both teams leaving it all on the floor. Ultimately, Jevon Carter’s best efforts to send the game to overtime came up short, and the Gonzaga Bulldogs are now 40 minutes away from the program’s first Final Four.