SAN JOSE — It was always ridiculous, all the focus on what Gonzaga hadn’t yet accomplished, the NCAA tournament losses that ended their seasons (as they tend to do when a team makes the NCAA tournament 19 straight years) and the persistent reputation of a program without the grit or defensive ability to win in March.
Everything about this particular Gonzaga team, from its roster makeup to its efficiency numbers to the teams it had beaten in the non-conference season, suggested this was the year it would finally break through to the Final Four.
And on Saturday, after nearly two full decades of excellence, the lovable Zags from the tiny West Coast Conference can finally say they’ve joined the club.
No. 1 seed Gonzaga is headed to the Final Four as West Regional champions following a dominant 83-59 victory over Xavier at SAP Arena, ending the narrative once and for all that Mark Few couldn’t win the big one.
Not that Few ever bought into it or cared much about how others wanted to paint his legacy. But now, his 18th NCAA tournament has changed the conversation from whether Gonzaga could make a Final Four to whether it can win the whole thing.
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The Zags certainly looked the part in dismantling Xavier’s zone defense, shooting 48% and most notably making 12 threes. Coming into the Elite Eight, Gonzaga had made just 16 total threes in the tournament with one player, Jordan Mathews, accounting for nine of them.
That’s why it was so crucial when guard Josh Perkins hit a pair of 3-pointers early, and then Nigel Williams-Goss started pouring them in along with Silas Melson and even forward Johnathan Williams III, who typically struggles outside the paint but was brilliant with 19 points on 12 field goal attempts.
In total, Gonzaga got eight threes in the first half from five different players to build a 49-39 lead, and when Williams-Goss (23 points, 8 assists, 8 rebounds) made his fourth from long distance with 11:21 remaining to give the Zags an 18-point bulge, Xavier’s J.P. Macura ran down the court with his palms turned up, as if to ask what more he could do.
In reality, nothing.
Gonzaga was better in every aspect, and Xavier finally looked like the No. 11 seed they were after a brilliant run to the Elite Eight. The Musketeers’ shooting that had carried them so far finally dried up — they shot 13% from beyond the arc and leading scorer Trevon Bluiett struggled, finishing with 10 points on 3-for-14 shooting — and the zone defense that frustrated Arizona on Thursday night was simply exposed by Gonzaga’s ball movement and shotmaking.
Gonzaga, of course, will carry plenty of naysayers to Glendale, Ariz., to face either Florida or South Carolina in the national semifinals. Besides the usual tropes about the mid-major conference it comes from or previous Gonzaga teams that simply aren’t as well-built as this one, some will nitpick Gonzaga struggling with Northwestern, holding on for dear life against West Virginia and then beating an overachieving 11 seed to get to the Final Four.
But all season long, advanced statistical rating systems like Pomeroy and Sagarin have loved Gonzaga and pointed toward a Final Four run, largely because of its top-ranked defense. Finally, after so many years of knocking on the door, things fell into place for Gonzaga — and it might not be done yet.