LAS VEGAS — The latest chapter of Drew Timme’s illustrious college basketball journey began like many others: in a whirlwind of pump fakes, bankers, duck-unders and floaters.
Nevertheless, Timme needed a big lift when it mattered, as he was just seconds away from a demoralizing end to his NCAA career after he missed a pair of free throws in a frantic final minute. UCLA guard Amari Bailey had capitalized on Timme’s misfires, drilling a three-pointer from the left wing to give the Bruins a 76-75 lead with 12.2 seconds left.
Rather than feeding Timme on the final possession, Gonzaga guard Hunter Sallis raced up court and surprised the Bruins by pitching the ball back to Julian Strawther. The junior guard, in turn, shocked the entire T-Mobile Arena by launching a three-pointer with his feet touching the edge of the center court logo. When the 32-foot shot found its target and the dust settled on the whiplash, end-to-end action, Gonzaga claimed a 79-76 victory to advance to the Elite Eight, where it will face No. 4 seed Connecticut on Saturday.
“One shining moment,” Timme said of Strawther’s three. “I think that’s that best way to describe it. He just buttered that thing. I can’t even describe what he did. It’s crazy. I’m not speechless too much, and I’m pretty speechless after that.”
When Gonzaga Coach Mark Few had first drawn up the unusual action in the huddle, his plan was for Strawther to use the pitch-back pass to get free for a drive toward the paint. Strawther, who finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds, asked if he could pull up and shoot if the defense gave him too much room. Few’s response: “Absolutely.”
STRAWTHER FROM WAY DEEP— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 24, 2023
GONZAGA HAS THE LEAD 😱#MarchMadness @ZagMBB pic.twitter.com/jBYf4gpn4q
And Strawther absolutely did, drilling an audacious shot that conjured memories of Jalen Suggs’ miracle three to seal the Bulldogs’ overtime victory over the Bruins in the 2021 Final Four. UCLA guard Dylan Andrews, who was back on his heels when Sallis tossed his lateral, recovered to get a hand in Strawther’s face. It made no difference.
“It’s moments like that you can’t make up,” said Strawther, who was born in Las Vegas and attended high school in nearby Henderson. “Those are literally the moments you dream of. To make a shot like that in March Madness and just to be back home in Vegas is like the cherry on top.”
Sixteen years ago to the day, the Bruins launched a late-game comeback to eliminate the Bulldogs from the Sweet 16, leaving Adam Morrison, the floppy-haired Gonzaga star, sprawled out and crying on the hardwood. Before Strawther’s gutsy triple, Gonzaga seemed headed for another tearful elimination.
The Bruins played from ahead for much of the first half, building a 46-33 halftime lead as Bailey, Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Tyger Campbell all reached double figures before the break. Timme kept Gonzaga in the game by scoring 13 of his team’s first 15 points, though UCLA appeared destined to prevail in the battle of West Coast powers thanks to its balanced offense and stout team defense.
“They had us on the ropes there at halftime,” Few said. “I challenged the guys at the half to get back to playing our way. I thought we played much better defense in the second half and cut down on our turnovers. That was what was really killing us in the first half.”
But the momentum swings were violent in a topsy-turvy second-half, as the Bruins went more than six minutes without scoring and more than 11 minutes without a field goal. Timme, who added 13 rebounds, four assists and two blocks, led a 12-3 run shortly after halftime and helped Gonzaga build a 10-point lead with 2:30 remaining.
“A lot of open shots that didn’t go down,” UCLA Coach Mick Cronin said of the second-half drought. “There’s no hindsight. Wide open shots. And multiple times we got fouled, no call. [David Singleton] and Tyger didn’t make a basket in the second half. They had good looks.”
Through mishaps and three missed free throws in the final minute, the Bulldogs conceded a 10-1 run capped by Bailey’s three-pointer. Bailey, a freshman guard who has come on strong since teammate Jaylen Clark’s season-ending Achilles’ injury earlier this month, tallied 19 points to complement Jacquez, a senior forward who finished with a team-high 29 points, 11 rebounds and 3 assists.
But Bailey’s hero status only lasted for the length of a timeout, plus the five seconds it took Gonzaga to race up the court for Strawther’s go-ahead three-pointer. UCLA turned the ball over before it could get up another game-winning attempt, and Strawther iced the win with a free throw in the closing seconds, ensuring that Timme would get another chance to reach the Final Four.
“We’re not worried about when my last game is or this or that,” Timme said. “Just game by game, day by day. I don’t like to get sentimental or think about feelings in that regard. But I wouldn’t want to go to war with anyone else other than these guys.”