The “buts.” Gonzaga University, a small Jesuit school out in Spokane, Wash., that will play for the NCAA men’s basketball championship on Monday night against North Carolina, can’t stop hearing the “buts.” Gonzaga’s a good basketball team, but … the Bulldogs play in the West Coast Conference, a league that toils outside the football-driven “Power 5” conference structure. They’ve never made the Final Four (until this season). They’re not-battle tested. They’re nervous.
Since 1999, when Gonzaga made a Cinderella run to the Elite Eight, the Gonzaga has oozed excellence. They’ve made the NCAA tournament every year since then. They sit with 37-1 record, and were one of the top seeds in this year’s NCAA tournament.
But. “I still don’t feel like we get the respect we deserve,” Gonzaga sophomore guard Josh Perkins says after Gonzaga outlasted South Carolina, 77-73, in Saturday’s first national semifinal game at University of Phoenix Stadium. (North Carolina beat Oregon, 77-76, in the second). Says Perkins: “The chips on our shoulders are getting bigger and bigger.”
A few weeks ago, Bill Walton called the West Coast Conference a “truckstop conference” and said Gonzaga mops up “the sisters of the poor.” On this way to a post-game press conference, Gonzaga’s Nigel Williams-Goss, a first-team All-American in both basketball and academics, wondered aloud: “What are they going to say now?”
Gonzaga’s incredible basketball journey, the kind of feel-good success story that’s all too rare in major college sports, has finally reached an overdue pinnacle. Like Butler, the school that reached two straight title games in 2010-2011 before them, the Zags prove that small schools can attract wildly talented, like-minded players who buy into an unselfish system and crash the power conference party. Butler, however, fell one half-court shot short of actually winning that national championship. Gonzaga expects to be cutting down the nets Monday night. After the win over South Carolina, Williams-Goss bumped into Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth. “We’ve got 40 more minutes,” he told Roth. “Why not?”
Gonzaga has the players to pull it off. Just ask South Carolina. Saturday’s surprise standout was 7-foot freshman Zach Collins, the first McDonald’s All-American high school player to commit to Gonzaga out of high school, but who scored seven points, total, in his two previous NCAA Tournament games. On Saturday, however, Collins told his roomate, Williams-Goss, that “I wouldn’t want to be playing against me today.” Collins finished with 14 points, 13 rebounds, and six blocked shots, tied for the second-highest blocks total in Final Four history.
Towards the end of the first-half, South Carolina’s Hassani Gravett drove the baseline, and rose for a one-handed slam. Collins met him at the rim, nervous that Gravett would posterize him. “I was worried that I was going to be in the Sportscenter Top 10,” Collins says. Instead, Collins stuffed Gravett clean, sending his dunk scurrying into the hands of Gonzaga teamate Jordan Matthews. “No. 2 tried to dunk on him,” said Matthews, referring to Gravett’s uniform number. “That wasn’t going to happen.”
Gonzaga, according to Matthews, has a name for its trademark defensive intensity. “We call it holding a pillow to the other team’s face,” Matthews says.
South Carolina, however, fought the pillow off in the second half. The Gamecocks went on a 16-0 run that turned a 65-51 Gonzaga lead into t 67-65 deficit. Then Collins got the ball at the top of the key. His husky teammate, 7′ 1″, 300-pound senior center Prezemek Karnowski, was open under the basket. “I probably should have throw it to him,” says Collins. Instead, he rose to shoot a three. The shot clunked against the back of the rim, died a little, a fell through the net. It was just the 10th three-pointer Collins hit all year. “I don’t know how it went in,” Collins says. He pumped his fist, relieved. Gonzaga would never relinquish the lead.
The Zags face stiff challenge Monday night. North Carolina’s back in the title-game for the second straight year, hungry to avenge last year’s heartbreaking loss to Villanova at the buzzer. Senior forward Kennedy Meeks, in particular, looked unstoppable Saturday night — he scored 25 points on 11-13 shooting and grabbed 14 rebounds. North Carolina survived Oregon: the Tar Heels missed four straight free throws in the final seconds, but Oregon never got the chance to take the game-winning shot, since North Carolina grabbed two offensive rebounds to run out the clock.
Even if North Carolina wins another championship, no more buts. Gonzaga’s basketball royalty. Now and for years to come.