Yet even with all that beauty going on, there still came a moment when March asked for something more, when fourth-seeded Florida State whittled a 14-point first-half lead to 60-56 with 4:11 left, Clarke tried something in the left post against 6-foot-10 Mfiondu Kabengele and Kabengele swatted it into a Seminoles possession. Even after that possession did not function well, the test was on as Gonzaga returned up the court.
Its last three free throws, including two one-and-one front ends, had clanged.
Its close games in 2018-19 had been few.
A bystander could have wondered.
Well, as Clarke would say, “It was really just trust in my teammates tonight.”
And as sophomore guard Zach Norvell Jr. would say, all full of know-how, “You don’t want to let the situation get too big.”
And as Few would say: “It’s winning. It’s winning, man. It’s the culture of winning,” as if reaching a national final in 2017 with a cast almost entirely different might have something to do with 2019.
It looked like it might.
Moments later, Gonzaga led 67-56, and the thing was done. First Rui Hachimura, the future NBA lottery pick from Japan, got under the basket with one of Florida State’s numerous imposing bodies on him, whereupon he had a look around. He saw Norvell on the perimeter on the left wing, and soon Norvell let fly with one smash of a three-point shot with 3:03 left. “I can’t lie,” said Josh Perkins, the point guard who scored 13 points in that 2017 title game with North Carolina and 14 on Thursday night. “When I see that three go in, I knew it was our day.”
They knew, and knowing is among the foremost keys to March. They knew enough that Leonard Hamilton, the 17th-season Florida State coach, cited “their ability to come closer to who they are than we did to who we are.”
Soon Clarke got fouled and made two free throws for a 65-56 lead, and Perkins threw a surprise lob to Clarke in the lane for a put-in with 1:33 left for 67-56.
They knew for a litany of reasons. They had Clarke, who watched Florida State’s 75-60 win over Gonzaga last year on television, having sat out while transferring from San Jose State. As Gonzaga would play against Florida State’s fearsome length with a captivating boldness right from the get-go, Clarke intended to “kind of not let them bully us like they did last year.”
So Clarke would pronounce himself “blessed just to be here and to be a Zag, really,” and Few would say: “He’s been in our culture for two years, and he knows. That’s just what winning does over the years.” Further: “It’s an incredible luxury to have just such a talented, high-energy, high-motor guy. You think about the one follow he had. I think he ran all the way from 94 feet to follow that.”
That would be with 12:38 left, when Clarke raced all the way down to follow Hachimura’s miss for a dunk, the second of three straight dunks that got a tepid crowd going and got a 55-42 lead for Gonzaga.
All of it had happened with Florida State’s usual numbers diminished both somewhat and achingly, the Seminoles (29-8) taking only their third loss since mid-January while lacking redshirt senior Phil Cofer, who had left the team to join family in mourning the death of his father, Mike Cofer, the Pro Bowl NFL linebacker. Unprompted, Few closed his news conference remarks by pointing out how Florida State lacked a mainstay.
With many of the key players back from the Florida State-Gonzaga West semifinal of 2018, up in Los Angeles, Few found an opponent “really, really tough to score on, tough to get any rhythm, tough to keep off the glass, tough to stop in transition,” even if he did say that having played last year helped with preparation. Florida State backup David Nichols didn’t play because of injury, and 7-foot-4 fright Christ Koumadje got into foul trouble, picking up his fourth with 14 minutes left.
“First of all,” Few said, “he was having to guard [Clarke] and having to guard Rui.”
That mattered this time in Chapter 2 of this matchup, but Gonzaga’s insides mattered even more. It looked like a team that had played Duke (a win), played at North Carolina (a loss) and played Tennessee (a loss) and knew it belonged alongside those. It did not look like the team that lost a garish West Coast Conference final to Saint Mary’s, 60-47.
“We had kind of, you know, just started leaking a little oil,” Few said, “and were kind of getting away from what and why we were so good.”
Two weeks after that, in the brutal wilds of March, Perkins sat at his locker and said: “We just know we’re ready for these moments as a team. It’s March.”