GONZAGA 83, XAVIER 59

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY TIM BONTEMPS

san jose — All through­out this col­lege bas­ket­ball sea­son, the doubters per­sisted. Yes, the Gonzaga Bull­dogs were bull­doz­ing their way through the com­pe­ti­tion, beat­ing the likes of Ari­zona, Florida, Iowa State — and Saint Mary’s three times. But there were also games against Quin­nip­iac, Bryant and Mis­sis­sippi Val­ley State — not to men­tion play­ing in the un­her­alded West Coast Con­fer­ence.

This wasn’t the first time the Bull­dogs en­tered the NCAA tour­na­ment with a flashy record (32-1 on Se­lec­tion Sun­day). And this was far from the first time Gonzaga had a team thought to be ca­pa­ble of mak­ing the Fi­nal Four, only to keep fall­ing short.

Why should this team be any dif­fer­ent?

Satur­day, the Zags force­fully proved they were with an 83-59 thump­ing of Xavier in the West Re­gion fi­nal, a win that gave the pro­gram its first trip to the Fi­nal Four. It was a win that came cour­tesy of a dis­parate cast of char­ac­ters: Mark Few, the dap­per, mild-man­nered coach who had presided over the pro­gram’s as­cent into na­tional con­scious­ness; Prze­mek Karnowski, a burly, bearded cen­ter from Poland; Nigel Wil­liams-Goss, Jor­dan Mathews and Johnathan Wil­liams, trans­fers from Wash­ing­ton, Cal­i­for­nia and Mis­souri re­spec­tively; and Zach Collins, a highly touted fresh­man ex­pected to be a first-round pick in June’s NBA draft.

From the game’s open­ing mo­ments there was lit­tle doubt. Gonzaga (36-1) built an early lead and me­thod­i­cally pulled away, al­low­ing for an ex­tended cel­e­bra­tion as the top-seeded Bull­dogs led No. 11 Xavier (24-14) by at least 20 points for much of the sec­ond half.

But as the fi­nal buzzer sounded, the mar­gin of vic­tory didn’t mat­ter. The fi­nal bar­rier to be­ing a mem­ber of this sport’s hal­lowed elite had fi­nally been over­come.

Gonzaga is headed to the Fi­nal Four.

“I’ve been there for 28 years,” Few said. “My first year on staff, we won four Divi­sion I games. And, I mean, this wasn’t even pos­si­ble. [But] each year we got bet­ter and bet­ter, and then we got re­ally, re­ally good.

“Our cul­ture is just so strong. This was a cul­ture win, and a cul­ture state­ment, and I couldn’t be prouder.”

The Bull­dogs will go to Glen­dale, Ariz., next week­end after dis­man­tling Xavier, no small achieve­ment. The Mus­ke­teers had blazed their way to this point by rout­ing Mary­land and Florida State last week­end in Or­lando, then beat­ing a heav­ily fa­vored Ari­zona team here Thurs­day night.

Gonzaga, how­ever, proved to be a far more dif­fi­cult foe. Wil­liams-Goss ex­pertly con­trolled the game, fin­ish­ing with 23 points, eight re­bounds and four as­sists as he sliced his way into the heart of Xavier’s de­fense when­ever he wanted. It was a sim­i­lar story for Wil­liams, who had 19 points on 8-for-12 shoot­ing to go with eight re­bounds on his way to be­ing named the West Re­gion’s most out­stand­ing player.

The true dif­fer­ence, though, was Gonzaga’s sti­fling de­fense. After hold­ing West Vir­ginia to an abysmal 26 per­cent from the field in Thurs­day’s Sweet 16 vic­tory, the Bull­dogs held the Mus­ke­teers to 35.5 per­cent shoot­ing in this one, in­clud­ing just 2 for 16 (12.5 per­cent) from three-point range. That, com­bined with Gonzaga shoot­ing 50 per­cent (12 for 24) from three-point range, left Xavier with few so­lu­tions.

“I give a lot of credit to Gonzaga,” Xavier Coach Chris Mack said. “They were the bet­ter team. They played like it tonight.”

Still, as the many Bull­dogs fans in at­ten­dance — in­clud­ing Bas­ket­ball Hall of Famer and alum John Stockton — cel­e­brated as the fi­nal min­utes ebbed away, it would’ve been hard to tell the game was in hand watch­ing Few on the side­lines. The 54-year-old con­tin­ued to ex­hort his charges right un­til the game’s fi­nal minute, fail­ing to take any­thing that was about to hap­pen for granted.

Fi­nally, though, he re­lented, call­ing a time­out with 53.1 sec­consid­ered onds left to al­low his starters a chance to be cel­e­brated as they came off the floor.

And, as each of them did, Few greeted them in­di­vid­u­ally, and then went back down the bench and per­son­ally hugged and greeted each player as the fi­nal sec­onds ticked off the clock, fi­nally tak­ing the chance to bask in the mo­ment.

“I just thanked [them],” Few said, “[and] said, ‘God bless you for be­liev­ing in us.’

“They all took a leap of faith. That’s what it is. It’s a leap of faith. They all had great op­tions, and they be­lieved in the cul­ture that I spoke of. They be­lieved in our staff.

“But now that we’ve de­liv­ered on it . . . I mean, it’s just a to­tal, to­tal feel­ing of ela­tion and hap­pi­ness for th­ese guys.”

For years, the doubters had per­sisted, and had lasted through­out this sea­son even as Gonzaga had thrown aside one op­po­nent after an­other.

Satur­day those doubters were si­lenced. In­stead, the mo­ment Gonzaga and its fans have waited what feels like for­ever for fi­nally had ar­rived.

Gonzaga is headed to the Fi­nal Four.

BEN MARGOT/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Gonzaga’s Nigel Wil­liams-Goss, who had 23 points, eight re­bounds and four as­sists, drives on Xavier’s Quentin Goodin and J.P. Macura.

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