Gonzaga broke through its Final Four ceiling, added to it by reaching the national championship game. The Zags figured while they’re here, might as well win the whole thing.
A flurry of whistles and missed shots left them one step short.
Plagued by foul trouble and an inability to hit shots in a foul-filled second half, Gonzaga lost its bid for the program’s first national championship in an ugly 71-65 loss to North Carolina on Monday night.
”I don’t think any of us think we played our absolute best game and that hurts,” Gonzaga point guard Nigel Williams-Goss said.
The Zags reached the big stage with the best team in Mark Few’s 18 seasons, a mix of established players, talented transfers and a sterling recruiting class.
Gonzaga was efficient on offense, as it always seems to be, and added a dash of gritty defense, the piece that had always been missing.
The Zags reached the Final Four for the first time this season, ending more than a decade of you’re-overrated criticism.
Gonzaga had to grind out a victory over a physical South Carolina team in the national semifinals and faced another ugly one against the blue-blooded Tar Heels, exacerbated by a shower of second-half foul calls by the officials.
In control most of the first half , the Zags (37-2) lost on a gamble with freshman center Zach Collins early in the second half.
Collins picked up his third foul early in the half, but Few opted to put him back in. Collins hit a big shot to stem North Carolina’s momentum, only to pick up his fourth foul a minute later and head to the bench.
Complicating it for the Zags, Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga’s 7-foot-1, 300-pound wall of a center, also had to dance around foul trouble most of the second half. He picked up his third foul five minutes into the half and his fourth with 8:02 left on a questionable flagrant foul while he was being fouled by North Carolina’s Joel Berry II.
That left Gonzaga unable to effectively initiate its inside-out game or protect the rim as aggressively as it had in the first half.
”We were negotiating our way through massive foul trouble, ones that we haven’t had all year,” Few said.
A stop-and-start second half didn’t help either team find a rhythm.
The officials called 27 fouls in the second half and had several other no-calls that had fans on both sides raining boos down on the court. One came in the final minute, when Kennedy Meeks won a battle for a loose ball, but clearly had his hand out of bounds.
”I had no idea. From my angle it didn’t look like it was a situation where there was an out-of-bounds situation or else I would have called for a review,” Few said. ”So nobody made me aware of it or I certainly would have within the last minute there or two minutes. So that’s tough. It’s tough to hear.”
Gonzaga’s defense was good, as it has been all season. The Zags held North Carolina to 35 percent from the field and 4 of 27 from 3-point range. They were solid against the nation’s best offensive rebounding team, finishing with three fewer than the Tar Heels and a 49-46 advantage overall.
Their offense only fired correctly in spurts, most of those in the first half.
Gonzaga opened the second half with two turnovers and five missed shots as North Carolina opened with an 8-0 run. Once the foul trouble hit, the shots wouldn’t as the Zags went nearly eight minutes without a field goal.
Somehow, they kept North Carolina within reach, reeling in the Tar Heels for a 65-63 lead with 1:53 left.
Then the championship trophy slipped from their grasp.
Gonzaga did not score again and North Carolina closed on an 8-0 run to win its sixth national championship and leave the Zags standing on the doorstep.
”They made some big plays down the stretch, but it could very well be us out there celebrating right now,” Gonzaga forward Johnathan Williams said.
Gonzaga hit 8 of 29 shots in the second half and played the final 5:03 without Collins, who fouled out after scoring seven points and grabbing nine rebounds.
Karnowski struggled against North Carolina’s length, missing numerous shots at the rim to finish with nine points on 1-of-8 shooting.
The quiet game by Gonzaga’s big men allowed North Carolina to have a 40-18 advantage in the paint.
”They disrupted us, they climbed up into us, kind of drove our offense outside the normal area as far as our wing touches and our entries,” Few said. ”And we didn’t do a good job of executing that.”
One goal reached, another one step short.