Gonzaga guard Nigel Williams-Goss turned the corner and dribbled into traffic, waited for three South Carolina defenders to converge on him in the paint and then lobbed a little hook toward the rim despite Justin McKie smacking him on the left arm.
When the ball went in with 10:55 remaining Saturday, Williams-Goss flexed and pointed to his biceps. But it took the Zags nearly nearly falling apart to prove how strong they truly are.
Despite an out-of-nowhere, 16-0 South Carolina run that threatened to evict Gonzaga from the Final Four after they rolled through the first 30 minutes of the national semifinals, the Bulldogs are moving on to Monday night’s championship game after a 77-73 victory at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Though Gonzaga got 23 points from Williams-Goss, who was brilliant making 9-of-16 field goals, its inside presence carried made the biggest difference in the most tense moments of the semifinals.
Senior big man Przemek Karnowski, who missed the end of the first half after getting raked in the eye, got the buckets with 6:06 and 4:48 remaining to restore order for Gonzaga, which lost the lead moments earlier. And 7-foot freshman Zach Collins came up with a double-double off the bench (14 points, 13 rebounds) while providing elite rim protection that made it difficult for South Carolina to score easy baskets.
Give the Gamecocks credit. They shot limited Gonzaga to 37% shooting in the second half to themselves a chance, and SEC palyer of the year Sindarius Thornwell eventually came on strong, finishing with 15 points after a tough first half.
South Carolina, in fact, was still within 75-72 and had two chances to possession with a chance to tie it up inside the final two minutes. Another Collins block with 90 seconds remaining — his sixth — snuffed out the first. Then, with 12.7 seconds remaining, South Carolina got one more shot.
Gonzaga smartly fouled Thornwell with 3.5 seconds left rather than allowing a tying 3-point attempt. After he made the first, he missed the second off the back of the rim, Gonzaga’s Killian Tillie came down with the rebound and was fouled with 2.2 seconds left. He made both to end the game.
Based on the way the second half was going, it seemed highly unlikely the Gamecocks would even be in that position, having fallen behind 65-51 with just under 11 minutes remaining. But suddenly, South Carolina — a No. 7 seed making a surprise trip to its first-ever Final Four — fought back.
In a span of fewer than four minutes, the Gamecocks made 8-of-9 field goals and erased the entire lead. But instead of getting rattled, Gonzaga settled like the veteran team it is, pounding the ball inside to Karnowski, who finished with 13 points.
Gonzaga controlled the first half, making 20-of-34 field goals, but couldn’t break away as the Gamecocks made some timely shots and only turned it over four times. The Zags, in fact, led 45-36 only due to a 7-0 run to close the final 2:25 of the half.
South Carolina, in many ways, was fortunate to be as competitive as it was despite making just 37% in the first half and getting only five points (1-for-5 field goals) from Thornwell, who battled an illness earlier this week.