SALT LAKE CITY – Southern finished just south of the greatest upset in NCAA tournament history.
Twenty years after winning as a No. 13 seed, the 16th-seeded Jaguars came oh so close to sending No. 1 ranked Gonzaga home from the NCAA West regional. The difference between the Jags and Zags was just how it looks in print — a “j.”
Gonzaga made two jumpers in the final minutes of its 64-58 victory and the Jaguars made one.
“Coming into the game, we thought we was going to make history,” Southern guard Jameel Grace said.
“No one comes into a game expecting to lose.”
Certainly not Gonzaga, which is seeded No. 1 in the West. Critics questioned the top-line seed, but no one questioned the ability of the 31-2 Zags to take SWAC champion Southern, which beat Prairie View A&M by one point, 45-44, to win its conference tournament.
No No. 16 seed has beaten a No. 1, but as is typical when the lower seed hangs, the Energy Solutions Arena turned almost all Southern as the game progressed. You could tell when Gonzaga scored by the drop in volume from the announced crowd of 12,671.
The crowd response surprised Zags coach Mark Few more than the difficulty of the game.
“The more I watched film on them, the more I thought it could be a real grinder,” Few said. “They don’t give you a lot of easy opportunities, and they’re very patient on offense. When they start shooting the ball like they did at multiple spots . . . and then the crowd gets going and everybody wants to see that first 1-16 loss. My guys played well when there wasn’t a whole lot going their way.”
Few built his career on the underdog Zags’ ability to surprise NCAA tournament favorites, and Southern second-year coach Roman Banks was among those who noticed, which made this matchup especially appealing to him.
“I came to Southern to try to build a basketball program, using Gonzaga as an example,” Banks said. “It’s a sight to see what a group of young men can do if they believe.”
The Jaguars were in Gonzaga’s jerseys almost the whole way, and they led by three midway through the first half. The game was tied at 54 when Southern’s Brandon Moore made two free throws with 4:08 left to cap a 7-0 Jaguar run, and again at 56 when Derrick Beltran made a mid-range jumper on the next possession.
Gonzaga got value from its next possessions, however, which made the difference. Gary Bell Jr. hit a 3-pointer from the right baseline on a feed from Kevin Pangos for a 59-56 lead with 3:20 remaining, and Pangos hit a step-back three from the right corner for a 62-58 lead with 1:55 left.
Forced to shoot quickly, Southern (23-10) missed its last four field goal attempts in a game played almost exactly 20 years after the Jaguars beat No. 4 seed Georgia Tech at McKale Center in Tucson on March 20, 1993.
Do not tell Southern close counts, either.
“Not at all,” said Beltran, a 6-foot-3 guard who had 21 points. “It’s not a good feeling, because we worked so hard all year long. It just don’t feel good.”
Gonzaga 7-footer Kelly Olynyk had 21 points and 10 rebounds while doing most of his damage in the second half. Southern big man Javan Mitchell used his body to keep Olynyk out of rhythm in the first half, but the Zags ran a pick-and-roll play time and again to get Olynyk clean look after clean look in the second. Olynyk had 17 of the Zags’ first 20 points in the second half, is mid-range jumper making it 54-47 with 6:17 remaining.
“The pick-and-roll was getting us confused,” said Mitchell, who had seven points, four rebounds and three blocked shots.
“They definitely weren’t scared to jump up and meet you at the rim,” Olynyk said.
“They played really physical down low, and a lot of times they have guards or other big men rotating over and trying to block shots up high. They’re a very athletic team, and we kinda just had to fight through that. The second half, we focused on finishing through contact. David Stockton and Kevin got me the ball off the pick and roll, so all I had to do is lay it in. They really made my second half what it was.”
Pangos had 16 points, five assists and two steals as Gonzaga advanced to play No. 9 seed Wichita State on Saturday.
Beltran was the only Jaguar in double figures. His 23-foot 3-pointer in Bell’s face made it 54-52 with five minutes left, and it was back and forth from there.
“We play hard,” Mitchell said. “We practice hard. We go through everything that a big time school goes through. We knew we had a good chance of winning. It’s just a bad feeling. We came up just short.”