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10 Observations from the Final Four

37-1. It wasn’t easy, but Gonzaga will play in the last game of the season.

South Carolina v Gonzaga Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Despite a valiant run from the Gamecocks, the Gonzaga defense stood tall in the end. Now the Zags get to play in the final game of the season.

  1. Gonzaga’s offense was excellent in the first half, with the positive vibes from the win against Xavier carrying over to Saturday. The Zags logged 37 possessions in the first 20 minutes and shot 53.% overall from the field and 61.5% from the three-point line.
  2. The game’s first offensive possession indicated what was to come from Nigel Williams-Goss when the dynamic point guard got to the elbow and sank a smooth mid-range jumper. Williams-Goss consistently got penetration into the lane against South Carolina’s defense which created opportunities for him to unleash his devastating floater or drop off to a big man waiting underneath on a duck-in.
  3. The Zags did a great job establishing their post game immediately against South Carolina’s frontline. Williams, Karnowski, and Collins all got good looks in the first few minutes which helped Gonzaga establish a good rhythm on the offensive end.
  4. Silas Melson had a really strong first half that seems to have flown under the radar. He sank a pair of 3-pointers to help stretch the floor for Gonzaga as South Carolina began to sag into the paint more to slow down the frontcourt, and also notched a pair of blocks. Add in his defensive efforts which include helping to hold Sindarius Thornwell to 5 points in the first half and a 4-12 shooting night overall, and Melson quietly had an impact performance. Oh, and don’t forget about his big rebound with 46 seconds left in the game.
  5. Jordan Mathews has done a great job fulfilling his stretch-the-floor role on offense throughout the tournament, and he didn’t disappoint against South Carolina. After going 4-8 from the three-point line against the Gamecocks, Mathews has scored in double figures in each of the five NCAA Tournament games (16, 14, 13, 11, 12) while averaging three made 3s per game (15 total for the Tournament).
  6. So that SC 16-0 run was not fun to sit through. It started with the score at 65-51 at the 10:40 mark in the second half when Chris Silva converted a 3-point play after a made lay-in (questionable foul on Collins) to cut Gonzaga’s lead to 11. Here’s how the rest of it went down: Williams-Goss missed a 3, PJ Dozier made a jumper at the FT line, Mathews turned the ball over on an ill-advised entry pass to Karnowski from the corner, Thornwell hit a transition 3 (which forced a Gonzaga timeout), Williams got blocked on a layup attempt, Dozier hit another short jumper/floater in the lane, Williams offensive foul, Silva made 2 free throws, Karnowski missed a short hook shot, and then despite Collins and Karnowski collecting consecutive blocks Dozier scooped up a loose ball and laid it in to tie the game at the 7:39 mark. Williams-Goss missed another 3 and Rakym Felder made 2 free throws to give South Carolina a momentary 67-65 lead—and its last of the game—before Collins finally broke the drought on a 3-pointer. The incredible thing is that while the Gamecocks scored those 16 points in 3 minutes and 35 seconds, Gonzaga’s defense held them to only 6 more points in the final 7:05 in the game. To move past that run in order to re-focus and clamp down on defense is the mark of a team with great character and leadership.
  7. It wasn’t a hallmark game from Gonzaga’s defense, but the biggest thing was that the players continued to believe in one another to make the right play even as the Gamecocks made their run. When a team goes on a run like SC’s 16-0 stretch, it would have been easy for any one of the Zags to start playing beyond their prescribed roles in order to make a splashy play to save the day which often times compounds the problem. Instead, they maintained their defensive rotations, continued to communicate, and trusted one another to be in the right positions.
  8. Can’t say enough about Killian Tillie coming in cold off the bench in a big spot to grab a big rebound on Thornwell’s missed free throw, and then calmly sink both free throws for his only 2 points of the game. You may expect that players should be able to make those free throws, but look no further than the end of the North Carolina-Oregon game in the same building a few hours later to see that nothing is routine at the end of the game. UNC was fortunate to escape with a win despite missing four straight free throws with under six seconds left, Tillie made sure not to leave things up to chance for the Zags.
  9. Zach Collins was at his absolute best in this game, and there’s no way the Zags would have won without him. His 3-pointer that dropped in off the back iron was huge to stop the SC run, even if Collins called it the ugliest 3 he’s ever made, and he put in a Sabonis-like effort on the boards to finish with a career high 13 rebounds. But it was his rim protection that really stole the show. Collins did a phenomenal job keeping his arms straight up on vertical challenges, and he consistently showcased his quick feet and agility to slide across the lane and meet South Carolina’s drivers at the rim. He finished with a dazzling 6 blocks, and probably had at least 5 more plays where he forced missed shots at the rim. That was a big time performance from a big time player.
  10. The late foul by Perkins with 3.5 seconds left and the Zags up by 3 was a great call, although based on Perkins reaction to the call it didn’t look intentional. Mark Few and Nigel’s comments after the game both suggested that fouling under 7 seconds was the playcall in that situation, although Few did indicate hesitation about it due to Gonzaga’s difficulties with rebounding missed free throws. This exact situation has been discussed ad nauseam over the years throughout basketball circles, and it was a great call by Few to call the foul in that situation and eliminate the possibility of a game-tying 3. The execution, whether Perkins meant that foul or not, was perfect too as doing it with under 4 seconds left really put the Gamecocks in a difficult spot. Subbing in Tillie for Karnowski during the free throws was also an underrated move as Tillie is a more nimble player in a loose ball situation, and it put a better free throw shooter on the floor. Everything unfolded in that situation exactly as you would draw it up in practice.

Bonus: I’ve complained about the refereeing throughout this tournament a lot, and this game gave me no reason to quit. Theoretically, the crews that get the Final Four and Championship game are the best in the country, but the results on the floor suggest otherwise. Inconsistency was the biggest issue for me. Once you’ve established that certain contact is going to be a foul, you have to call that for the remainder of the game. For example, at the start of SC’s run, Chris Silva led with his shoulder on a post move to bump Collins and create space for his shot. Collins got called for a foul for the violation of standing there while getting hit in the chest. Fine. In the last few minutes of the game, Collins did the same exact move on the offensive end and made the same level of contact with his lead shoulder but got whistled for an offensive foul. I’m not making this comment to suggest that SC (I thought SC was great and I hope Frank Martin can build a perennial power over there) got more favorable calls than Gonzaga, but rather to illustrate the inconsistency that was prevalent for most of the night.