He finished with 18 points, nine rebounds and two assists, and he looked good doing it, carrying second-seeded Gonzaga back to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1999. He established himself as a legitimate NBA prospect during his junior season, averaging a serviceable 10.9 points and 5.7 rebounds, but he simply dazzled Friday night at NRG Stadium in front of a host of scouts.
“For me, it was always a dream to play here,” he said after the game.
It came on a night when the offensive showing was putrid for long stretches. Both teams had been peppered with questions Thursday about the oddity of playing basketball in a giant football stadium. Was it weird to play on an elevated court? Were there soft spots on the floor? Was it difficult to shoot in the middle of what seemed like a massive, dark cave? The depth perception looked as if it was playing mind games, including for the Bulldogs, who hit just 3-of-19 from three-point range and shot 40.3 percent from the field.
For one stretch in the first half, both teams combined to miss 19 straight shots — there was no field goal for more than six minutes — and after UCLA used a quick 6-0 run to pull within 35-34 after halftime, the crowd seemed as if it could fully engage in a strange Sweet 16 game for the first time.
The questions about Gonzaga’s ability to make a deep tournament run, fueled by five straight seasons of exiting in the Round of 32, may have been put to rest with its win over Iowa last weekend. But now it is in the Elite Eight for the first time since the year before Coach Mark Few’s first season in Spokane, which began the fourth-longest tournament run in the country with 17 straight trips (only Duke, Kansas and Michigan State have been to more consecutive tournaments).
“It means that we get to hang out again for another two days together,” Few said. “As close as this team is, that is the absolute strongest motivating factor.”
The run continued in large part because of Karnowski. He split open UCLA’s 3-2 zone for most of the night – he blended hooks and midrange moves and finished 8 of 11 from the field. He had a no-look pass to Gonzaga’s other big man, Damantas Sabonis, to push the lead to 14 with about 11 minutes remaining. He did it again about five minutes later after UCLA collapsed and double-teamed him, and he wrapped the ball behind his back for another assist to Sabonis to again push the lead to 14.
“I think we have the best passing big men in the country. They are really great at finding each other,” said guard Byron Wesley, who had 14 points.
Karnowski modestly ran back down the floor, huffing and puffing through his blonde beard, unaware that his teammates were all staring at the big screen to try to get another glimpse. They eventually did – and after a defensive rebound in the final minute, Karnowski called timeout and exited the game to a loud ovation.