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Armour: Cute and Cuddly No More, Gonzaga Proves Itself as One of Elite

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Gonzaga’s Nigel Williams-Goss (5) celebrates after the semifinals of the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament against South Carolina, Saturday, April 1, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. Gonzaga won 77-73. Photo: Charlie Neibergall / The Associated Press

Everybody’s favorite outsider is now the ultimate insider.

Eighteen years after it burst onto college basketball’s biggest stage, busting brackets and striking a blow for little guys everywhere, Gonzaga will play for the national title Monday night. Let that sink in for a minute. The small, Jesuit school with the name people still aren’t quite sure how to pronounce is one of the last two schools standing.

“Just ecstatic to be still playing,” coach Mark Few said Saturday night after he’d celebrated his team’s 77-73 win against South Carolina with a handstand in the locker room. “To be playing the last game of the year is just crazy cool.”

And long overdue.

Before there was Butler, before there was VCU, before there was George Mason, there was Gonzaga. Previously known as an answer to a John Stockton trivia question, Gonzaga got the attention of the big boys in 1999 when it made it all the way to the Elite Eight.

These weren’t cupcakes the Bulldogs knocked off, mind you. Second-seeded Stanford had the Collins twins and Mark Madsen. Florida had Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller and would make the title game the next year.

By the time Gonzaga exited, kicking, screaming and scaring the bejeezus out of eventual national champion Connecticut, the Bulldogs had opened eyes around the country. When they backed it up by making the Sweet 16 the next two years, the narrative of mid-majors was forever changed.

No longer were they cute-and-cuddly upstarts destined to be sent off when it was time for the grown-ups to get serious. Get the right coach, the right kids and the right resources, and they could contend with the best of them.

But it would be George Mason, VCU and Butler that would really blur the line between the mid-majors and the power conferences with their Final Four appearances.

Sure, Gonzaga would be seeded No. 1 in 2013 and reach the Elite Eight two years later. But if it wanted to finish what it started 18 years ago, to go from plucky upstart to brass-knuckled powerhouse, it needed to go further.

It needed this night, this game.

Gonzaga forward Johnathan Williams (3) celebrates with teammates after dunking against Xavier during the second half on Saturday. Photo: Ben Margot/AP

Even as they won their first 29 games, the last team in the country with an unblemished record, the ‘Zags heard the knocks. They hadn’t really played anyone (apparently Florida and Arizona don’t count) and would crumble if they ever got tested.

And when they finally broke through to reach the Final Four for the first time, many were quick to point out that it was an 11th seed, Xavier, they’d beaten. As if the Bulldogs had anything control over that.

“We just heard everything this year,” said Nigel Williams-Goss, who scored a game-high 23 points. “We’ve heard the conference, we’ve heard we haven’t played tight games, that we’re not tough, we’ve heard everything.”

But the Bulldogs earned every inch of their spot in the title game.

This was threatening to be yet another Gonzaga runaway when Williams-Goss converted a three-point play to give the Bulldogs a 14-point lead midway through the second half. But the Gamecocks erased the entire deficit with a ruthless 16-0 spurt, taking the lead just three-and-a-half minutes later.

“If I had my choice, that was exactly the game I would have chosen,” Few said. “I envisioned going into this, like, 25-22 at half. The fact that it was going up and down is the way we want to play, and like to play, and when we’re at our best.”

Freshman Zach Collins made a monster three to stop the South Carolina run and steady Gonzaga. Then, after a dunk by Przemek Karnowski, Collins 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. Collins, who had to step up with Karnowski missing most of the first half after getting poked in the eye, finished with 14 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks.

Nothing warm and fuzzy about that.

“Me and Zach are roommates … and he told me before the game, ‘Look, I wouldn’t want to be playing against me today,’ ” Williams-Goss said. “And Coach says it all year that we just can’t talk the talk, we gotta walk the walk.”

Gonzaga did that and then some. The transformation is complete.

By Nancy Armour

This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

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