SAN JOSE — All throughout this college basketball season, the doubters persisted. Yes, the Gonzaga Bulldogs were bulldozing their way through the competition, beating the likes of Arizona, Florida, Iowa State — and Saint Mary’s three times. But there were also games against Quinnipiac, Bryant and Mississippi Valley State — not to mention playing in the unheralded West Coast Conference.
This wasn’t the first time the Bulldogs entered the NCAA tournament with a flashy record (32-1 on Selection Sunday). And this was far from the first time Gonzaga had a team thought to be capable of making the Final Four, only to keep falling short. Why should this team be any different?
Saturday, the Zags forcefully proved they were with an 83-59 thumping of Xavier in the West Region final, a win that gave the program its first trip to the Final Four. It was a win that came courtesy of a disparate cast of characters: Mark Few, the dapper, mild-mannered coach who had presided over the program’s ascent into national consciousness; Przemek Karnowski, a burly, bearded center from Poland; Nigel Williams-Goss, Jordan Mathews and Johnathan Williams, transfers from Washington, California and Missouri respectively; and Zach Collins, a highly touted freshman expected to be a first-round pick in June’s NBA draft.
From the game’s opening moments there was little doubt. Gonzaga (36-1) built an early lead and methodically pulled away, allowing for an extended celebration as the top-seeded Bulldogs led No. 11 Xavier (24-14) by at least 20 points for much of the second half.
But as the final buzzer sounded, the margin of victory didn’t matter. The final barrier to being considered a member of this sport’s hallowed elite had finally been overcome.
Gonzaga is headed to the Final Four.
“I’ve been there for 28 years,” Few said. “My first year on staff, we won four Division I games. And, I mean, this wasn’t even possible. [But] each year we got better and better, and then we got really, really good.
“Our culture is just so strong. This was a culture win, and a culture statement, and I couldn’t be prouder.”
The Bulldogs will go to Glendale, Ariz., next weekend after dismantling Xavier, no small achievement. The Musketeers had blazed their way to this point by routing Maryland and Florida State last weekend in Orlando, then beating a heavily favored Arizona team here Thursday night.
Gonzaga, however, proved to be a far more difficult foe. Williams-Goss expertly controlled the game, finishing with 23 points, eight rebounds and four assists as he sliced his way into the heart of Xavier’s defense whenever he wanted. It was a similar story for Williams, who had 19 points on 8-for-12 shooting to go with eight rebounds on his way to being named the West Region’s most outstanding player.
The true difference, though, was Gonzaga’s stifling defense. After holding West Virginia to an abysmal 26 percent from the field in Thursday’s Sweet 16 victory, the Bulldogs held the Musketeers to 35.5 percent shooting in this one, including just 2 for 16 (12.5 percent) from three-point range. That, combined with Gonzaga shooting 50 percent (12 for 24) from three-point range, left Xavier with few solutions.
“I give a lot of credit to Gonzaga,” Xavier Coach Chris Mack said. “They were the better team. They played like it tonight.”
Still, as the many Bulldogs fans in attendance — including Basketball Hall of Famer and alum John Stockton — celebrated as the final minutes ebbed away, it would’ve been hard to tell the game was in hand watching Few on the sidelines. The 54-year-old continued to exhort his charges right until the game’s final minute, failing to take anything that was about to happen for granted.
Finally, though, he relented, calling a timeout with 53.1 seconds left to allow his starters a chance to be celebrated as they came off the floor.
And, as each of them did, Few greeted them individually, and then went back down the bench and personally hugged and greeted each player as the final seconds ticked off the clock, finally taking the chance to bask in the moment.
“I just thanked [them],” Few said, “[and] said, ‘God bless you for believing in us.’
“They all took a leap of faith. That’s what it is. It’s a leap of faith. They all had great options, and they believed in the culture that I spoke of. They believed in our staff.
“But now that we’ve delivered on it . . . I mean, it’s just a total, total feeling of elation and happiness for these guys.”
For years, the doubters had persisted, and had lasted throughout this season even as Gonzaga had thrown aside one opponent after another.
Saturday those doubters were silenced. Instead, the moment Gonzaga and its fans have waited what feels like forever for finally had arrived.
Gonzaga is headed to the Final Four.