Let out a sigh of relief. The Gonzaga Bulldogs launched their 2018 NCAA Tournament Campaign at Taco Bell Arena with a 68-64 win, but the game was about as grisly as a late night visit to Taco Bell. Nothing came easy for the Zags, but survive and advance, right?
A clinical three-point shooting display this was not, as the two teams combined to shoot 8-45 from long distance. Johnathan Williams was able to pick up 10 of his 13 rebounds in the first half alone with all the missed shots falling his way. He finished with a double-double (19 points), and was easily Gonzaga’s most consistent player in the opening game, while Josh Perkins (16 points) and Zach Norvell (15 points) came up with the two biggest shots of the game.
Whether it was UNCG’s defense, the early start time, a first round NCAA Tournament game, or a combination of all three, the Bulldogs struggled out of the gate. It didn’t come as much of a surprise then that the first 10 minutes of the game only the Zags score 12 points. But you can’t keep a
good man Bulldog down forever, and they finally showed some signs of life with a 7-0 run midway through the opening half.
Gonzaga’s little run didn’t last long, however, as the Spartans quickly answered thanks to an impressive sequence from SoCon defensive player of the year, James Dickey, who proved to be a handful at both ends of the floor. Dickey produced back-to-back dunks and scored six straight points for UNCG that immediately reeled Gonzaga back in and kept the Spartans in the game.
While UNCG’s full court pressure defense was the focus going into the game, Gonzaga’s defense proved to be no slouch either. Outside of Dickey, the UNCG appeared to have failed to make the trip west as its long-distance volume attack was blanked to the tune of 0-13 in the first half. Though those numerous missed threes delivered eight offensive rebounds for the Spartans, the Zags prevented them from turning any of those offensive boards into second-chance points and allowed Gonzaga to take a 32-23 lead into the break.
The first half could have looked a lot different for Gonzaga if not for Corey Kispert, who provided eight points off the bench along with steady overall play, and made up for an empty half from Tillie who was forced to sit for a long time due to foul trouble.
If the first half belonged to Kispert, the second went to Johnathan Williams who put the team on his back and scored 8 of the team’s first 10 points out of the break that gave Gonzaga a much needed cushion. But every time the Zags appeared to be in position to pull away, the Spartans reeled them back in.
Francis Alonso, UNCG’s leading scorer this season, found his shooting touch in the second half and buoyed the Spartans while their defense continued to harry Gonzaga. As the minutes ticked down, Gonzaga’s margin continued to narrow until the Spartans eventually evened the game at 58.
The closing minutes were likely nauseating for every fan of Gonzaga, particularly when the Spartans took a 64-62 lead with 1:46 left to play. After Melson missed the front-end of a one-and-one with 1:21 left to play, the urge to panic increased exponentially. Fortunately, Josh Perkins and Zach Norvell have much bigger stones than I.
Following a UNCG turnover due to an ill-advised alley-oop attempt, Perkins calmly stepped into a 20-foot jumper and drained the game-tying shot. After Alonso missed a shot on the other end, the ball found Norvell on the wing and he found the bottom of the arc with a clutch three that gave Gonzaga a 67-64 lead with 20 seconds left to play. The Zags kept the door open for the Spartans until the very end with a handful of missed free throws, but UNCG failed to capitalize, so it will be Gonzaga that gets to play on Saturday against the winner of Ohio State/South Dakota State.
Welcome back, March.