USA TODAY Sports breaks down the biggest difference makers in Saturday's first Final Four game at Glendale, Ariz.
1. Gonzaga's foul, South Carolina's purposeful miss
Holding a three-point lead, the 'Zags' decision to foul Sindarius Thornwell with three seconds left was questionable yet ultimately brilliant because it robbed the Gamecocks' of a game-tying shot. Thornwell then made the first free throw and opted to miss the second on purpose. He bricked it nicely enough to give South Carolina's big guys a chance to rebound it, but it landed right in the hands of reserve Killian Tillie, who knocked down two free throws to secure the victory. Had Thornwell made the second free throw, perhaps the Gamecocks' swarming pressure could have forced Gonzaga to make a mistake with no timeouts left under their own basket.
2. Zach Collins as the ultimate X-Factor
Collins now a bona-fide lottery pick in the NBA draft but he did more than impress scouts in Saturday's Final Four game. His state line — 14 points, 13 rebounds and six huge blocks — tells one story, but he was the game's key guy for the momentum-shifting plays when it mattered most. The freshman 7-footer was huge down the stretch, coming up with one of his six blocks on Thornwell with 1:19 remaining and his three-pointer around the six-minute mark helped the 'Zags retake the lead after South Carolina had stormed back and was sucking away the game's momentum. Whether it was finesse post moves or reading high-lows and dishing to fellow 7-footer Przemek Karnowski, Collins was impressive.
Look up the definition of stud. This guy might have his picture next to it.— Gonzaga Basketball (@ZagMBB) April 2, 2017
🏀 6blk pic.twitter.com/hrbiddI8La
3. Gonzaga's relaxed play, then counter-punch
With the pressure of getting to the Final Four lifted off the Bulldogs' shoulders, their offense flowed as good as it did during the regular season when they nearly went undefeated. Gonzaga leads the country in defensive efficiency, largely because of its by-committee approach and versatility. That approach showed on offense Saturday for the entire first half and then early in the second to build a 14-point cushion. Nigel Williams' Goss led the charge and went on to finish with 23 points, all seemingly huge buckets at crucial points in the game whether it be a three-pointer or and-1.
But it was the 'Zags counter-punch after they surrendered a big lead that separates this group from previous Gonzaga teams that maybe would've faltered or not swung back so forcefully. After South Carolina retook the lead with 7:06 remaining, they rode their defense to hold the Gamecocks scoreless for several minutes — which gave their offense enough time to take it over. Few said after the game that "people keep knocking us for not being able to play close games." Now in the title game, the criticism can stop.
Thornwell, on the other hand, got off to a rough start and it didn't do his team that rides his energy any favors. Although he finished with 15 points and the comeback showed South Carolina at its best, had there never been that big of a hole the outcome could've been different. At halftime, coach Frank Martin said that Thornwell (two points in the first half) — who had been sick earlier this week and missed practice — didn't have "a lot of energy and bounce in his game." He had much more of it in the second half, but it wasn't enough, as he was far below his average of 26 that helped get the Gamecocks to Phoenix.
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