GLENDALE, Ariz. (USA TODAY) -- The transformation is complete.
No longer the cute-and-cuddly upstart that delighted in busting brackets 15 years ago, Gonzaga has officially gone big time. After finally breaking through and making Final Four for the first time, Gonzaga is now 40 minutes away from a national title.
As the buzzer sounded on the 77-73 victory over South Carolina on Saturday night, the Bulldogs exploded off their bench. Several mobbed freshman Killian Tillie, whose only points of the night, a pair of free throws with just over two seconds left, were as big as any for the ‘Zags.
In truth, Gonzaga stopped being a fun little story four years ago, when it was seeded No. 1 for the first time. These Bulldogs are just as much a powerhouse now as North Carolina or Kentucky, winning more than any other program since the 2010-11 season.
Go ahead, look it up. They’re 206-39 these last six years, losing double-digit games just once. They flirted with a perfect season this season, not losing until the end of February, and enter Monday night’s game at 37-1.
But a team from a small, private school tucked away in Spokane, Wash., is always going to be something of a curiosity. There’s an easy way to change that, though.
Win the whole thing.
The Bulldogs proved they’ve got everything it takes to cut down the nets Monday night, when they’ll play the winner of Oregon-North Carolina.
This was expected to be a brass-knuckled rock fight, two of the best defensive teams trying to squeeze the life out of each other. But what makes these Bulldogs so special is they’re as good offensively as they are defensively.
They shot 58% in the first half, a stat that just isn’t seen against South Carolina. With Sindarius Thornwell quiet after having the flu earlier this week, Gonzaga appeared on the verge of turning this into a blowout – just as it’s done for most of the season.
When Nigel Williams-Goss, who would lead all scorers with 23, scored on a jumper and drew a foul in the process midway through the second half, he turned to the ‘Zags cheering section and let out a roar that could be heard clear across the desert.
But the Gamecocks have been a second-half team all tournament, and this was no different. Chris Silva converted a three-point play to start a 16-0 run. All but left for dead at the midway point of the second half, South Carolina had the lead just three-and-a-half minutes later.
But Zach Collins, who dominated both ends of the floor, made a monster three to stop the South Carolina run and steady Gonzaga. Then, after a dunk by Przemek Karnowski, he fed the big man again for a layup that put the Bulldogs up 72-67 with 4:48 to play.
Gonzaga would never trail again. And it will never be looked at quite the same way again, either.