NCAA TOURNAMENT: Zags carve up Xavier 83-59 for first-ever Final Four bid

March 25, 2017

NCAA

Gonzaga guard Nigel Williams-Goss (5) drives to the basket as Xavier’s Sean O’Mara (54) defends during the second half of an NCAA Tournament college basketball regional final game Saturday, March 25, 2017, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

By Jeremy Harness

SAN JOSE – As he found himself less than a minute away from the Final Four, Nigel Williams-Goss broke away from the crowd to gather his emotions.

He thought about his transfer from Washington and having to wait an entire season to get on the court with his new team, the ankle surgery he underwent during that year, and the overall journey that he and his team embarked on that has culminated in Gonzaga’s first-ever trip to the Final Four as a result of an 83-59 win over Xavier Saturday afternoon.

It was only fitting that Williams-Goss, the team’s leading scorer, be the one to spearhead the Bulldogs’ charge.

Not having to worry about being worn down by a full-court press like he did against West Virginia two days earlier, but instead was faced with Xavier’s half-court 2-3 zone, Williams-Goss was more free – and had more energy – to show his entire offensive game. It certainly showed, as he finished the game with 23 points on 7-of-19 shooting to go along with eight rebounds and four assists and did not turn the ball over once.

“We had a plan for ourselves,” Williams-Goss said. “We believed from day one, when we all stepped foot on this campus, that we could go to Phoenix, (the site of this year’s Final Four). And to be 50 seconds away to kind of check off that last goal that I had, when I originally got here, it was just a lot of emotion.”

Gonzaga used the 3-ball to jump out to an early lead and continued to use that for the remainder of the game. The Bulldogs sank eight of their 13 attempts from behind the arc to shoot out to a 49-39 halftime lead, effectively putting aside the shooting woes that were a major factor in the previous round, and made four more in the second half.

One big – literally and figuratively, by the way – reason for the abundance of open looks that Gonzaga got on Saturday was their ability to first get the ball into 7-foot-1, 300-pound Przemek Karnowski, who only scored five points on 2-of-4 shooting but proved to be a very effective passer when faced with a double team, a look that Xavier showed very often in order to get the ball out of his hands.

“No team that we’ve played has had a passer like Karnowski,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “He knows where everybody on his team is. And while he catches the ball in the mid post or high post in the zone, he’s such a huge target.

“When he catches it, he’s just going to turn and survey very patiently because he doesn’t have to worry about anybody affecting his ball. He’s going to find out who is open. He’s the reason.”

One of the other benefactors of this was Jonathan Williams, who teamed up with Karnowski to form an inside presence that Xavier had no answer for. He scored 19 points while making eight of his 12 shots, including an unlikely 3-pointer early in the second half that keyed a surge that put Gonzaga firmly in the driver’s seat.

“It’s just a crazy feeling to be able to go to the Final Four,” said Williams, who himself was a transfer, as he left Missouri and also had to sit out a year before joining Gonzaga. “I just want to thank God for my sitting out.

“I wouldn’t be here without my brothers, and if it wasn’t for Coach (Mark) Few and the coaching staff.”

Trevon Bluiett, on the other hand, was not nearly as efficient on Saturday. Xavier’s star guard, who was named to this year’s All-America third team and led the Musketeers’ upset win over Arizona on Thursday to get to this point, could not quite get himself on track when his team needed it the most.

He was a nightmarish 3-of-14 from the floor for 10 points, including making only one of his six shots from behind the 3-point line.

As was the case with Williams-Goss, Bluiett’s woes are reflective of the rest of his team. The entire offense also seemed to lack any consistent rhythm, whether it be the ability to make a basket that steadily decreased as the game progressed or the number of fumbled passes that led to transition points for Gonzaga.

Trailing by 10 at the half, Xavier shot a decent 44 percent from the floor and was certainly in a good position to make a run. However, Gonzaga blitzed the Musketeers to start the second half and opened up a 17-point lead in the first four minutes, and they never seemed to recover from that.

Xavier only made eight of its 30 field goals in the second half, with countless shots clanking off the back of the rim while the miscues – including the dropped passes and turnovers – piled up at a time when it needed to be at its sharpest.

It was a far cry from their comeback win over Arizona, which was a back-and-forth tussle that saw the Musketeers make all of the big shots and defensive stops down the stretch. The Musketeers simply had no answers for Gonzaga’s inside game, and the game was all but over when Gonzaga’s shots went in and theirs did not.

NOTES: Xavier did not get a lot of breaks on Saturday, but it did get one. A Gonzaga player attempted to corral a defensive rebound but ended up bouncing the ball on the floor, and it ended up bouncing off the glass and into his own basket.

Xavier almost got another big break going into the half, as J.P Macura’s three-quarter-court heave found the bottom of the basket. However, he was ruled to have released the shot after time had run out in the first half, so the Musketeers’ 10-point halftime deficit remained.

Gonzaga has now won each of the last four meetings with Xavier. Their last NCAA Tournament matchup, in 2006, was certainly more of a struggle than was the case on Saturday, as the third-seeded Bulldogs trailed Xavier at halftime before coming back to hang on for a 79-75 win.

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