- Robbi Pickeral, College Basketball
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SALT LAKE CITY -- No doubt this will add fodder for those who think Gonzaga should not have earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
But the Zags? They’re just glad to move on to the Round of 32.
Facing postgame questions with the same kind of poise they used to survive down the stretch Thursday, the Zags said they’ll have to shore up their defense and get better after surviving against 16th-seeded Southern, 64-58.
But asked if they were mad, worried or more motivated about coming oh-so-close to becoming the first No. 1 to lose to a No. 16, Kelly Olynyk offered a shrug: “Any win in the tournament is a good win.”
True, but this was a bit of a scary one for the Zags, who hadn’t played in more than a week, and who looked like they needed to shake off a few cobwebs.
The Jaguars, winners of the SWAC, “came here to win a ballgame, not play a ballgame," Southern coach Roman Banks said. And they showed that from the beginning, shooting 47.8 percent in a first half that saw the lead change three times.
And in the second half, too, shooting back from an Olynyk-led 11-0 run to knot the score at 54 with 4:08 left on two Brandon Moore free throws.
“Coming into the game, we thought we were going to make history," Southern guard Jameel Grace said.
So did most of the raucous crowd, too, judging by the noise coming down the stretch.
But even with things going against them -- the audience, an offensive-foul charge, and at times it seemed, the rim -- Gonzaga showed the sort of composure and confidence coach Mark Few knows is necessary to win in tight situations.
"I reminded them nothing is going to be easy, and the longer this thing goes you’re going to see pretty much everybody in the whole arena outside of loyal Zags fans slide over to the other side," Few said. “I said it doesn’t matter. Whatever comes at us, if the call doesn’t go our way, we miss an easy bunny, miss an assignment, move on to the next play -- we’re going to get it done. Nothing is going to stop us."
And in the end, it didn’t.
After Southern’s Derick Beltran (21 points) buried two free throws to cut Gonzaga’s lead to one, Zags guard Kevin Pangos (16 points) made a 3-pointer with 1:54 left to give his team a solid cushion. And this one stuck.
Southern didn’t make another basket, and Pangos hit two free throws with 15 seconds left to seal the victory.
And survive, despite Southern’s eight blocks and 43.5 percent 3-point shooting.
“Hey, obviously it's great to advance and move on," said Few, whose team boasts a No. 1 seed for the first time in NCAA tournament history, and doesn’t want to prove those naysayers right any time soon.