At long last, the Gonzaga Bulldogs are headed to the Final Four.
Let that sink in. Enjoy it. After years of heartbreak and near-misses, Gonzaga overwhelmed the Xavier Musketeers 83-59 and finally advanced to the third weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
The Zags almost assuredly expected a better start than what took place on the game’s first possession when Xavier’s Malcolm Bernard intercepted a Josh Perkins pass and raced uncontested to the other end for an easy layup. Though the lack of ball security was a concern, it was Gonzaga’s struggles on the defensive end that was most perplexing.
Xavier looked like it cracked the code to the Bulldog defense that has suffocated opponents all season long. The Musketeer’s dynamic guards were routinely able to penetrate the heart of Gonzaga’s defense with an ease that has eluded Bulldog opponents for most of the season. JP Macura (18 points), in particular, proved to be a handful, and he put an exclamation mark on an exciting first half when he sank a 3⁄4 court heave at the buzzer even though it was waived off after further review.
Although Gonzaga’s vaunted defense took some time to get going, the offense woke up from its long slumber against Xavier’s zone defense. Gonzaga’s frontcourt offered a clear advantage against a Musketeer lineup whose tallest player measures in at 6’9”. It was evident that Xavier head coach Chris Mack was willing to concede the perimeter against a Gonzaga team that hadn’t shot the ball well going into the Elite 8. However, the emphasis on clogging up the paint allowed Gonzaga’s guards to initiate a 3-point barrage.
Sweet 16 hero Jordan Mathews and Josh Perkins (3-4 from 3 in the first half) got the ball rolling on a long distance assault that saw the Zags finish the first half 8-13 from the arc and 12-24 at the end of the game. Perkins success from 3 in particular was an encouraging sign, as Gonzaga’s offense simply has too many weapons to stop when the sophomore guard has it going.
Though Perkins’ emergence was key, Johnathan Williams was the story as he continued his excellent tournament run. The Mizzou-transfer tends to fly under the radar thanks to his subdued off-court personality, but he had his way against Xavier’s undersized lineup to the tune of 19 points (8-12 FG), 8 rebounds, and 3 blocks. As Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins had to sit for long stretches of time due to foul trouble, it was Williams who carried the banner for the frontcourt.
The second half followed the same script as the first, with the Zags continuing to pummel Xavier with their inside-out attack. That Karnowski opened the half with an easy two-foot hook shot demonstrated the mountain the Musketeers would have to climb if they wanted to be victorious.
A small ray of hope might have presented itself when Karnowski picked up a quick third foul, but it didn’t matter as Williams and Nigel Williams-Goss combined to push Gonzaga’s lead to over 20 points with under 10 minutes to go.
As the Zags tightened their defense in the second half, Xavier was left to look for answers that never materialized. The closest the Musketeers got to slowing down Gonzaga in the second half came courtesy of the young lady mopping the floor directly in the path of a streaking Josh Perkins. Fortunately for her, but not Xavier, Perkins slowed down just enough to allow her to get out of the way before capping off his fast break.
The rest of the game proved to serve as filler as the Zags counted down the seconds until they could fully celebrate the program’s first Final Four berth. For Mark Few, the Gonzaga University staff and faculty, fans, and all the players who helped build the program into a national power, today was a long time coming. But finally, the day has arrived. Gonzaga is dancing all the way to the Final Four.