Entries in Final Four (18)


The road and the dream end for the Zags

By Art Spander

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The road ended here. So did the dream. So wonderful a story, the outsider, the small school with the big plan, to stand college basketball on its ear, to beat the big boys with some big men and tenacious defense.

Gonzaga, the “Zags,” as it said in white letters on their blue tops, was ahead, leading North Carolina by a point Saturday night in the NCAA basketball championship of 2017, 1 minute and 40 seconds from the win.

And then never scored again. And then thrashed and missed and fouled and fell. And just like that it seemed, so quickly, a royal coach turning into a pumpkin, a magnificent season turning into a disappointment: Carolina was a 71-65 winner.

There were the Zags, leaning on each others’ shoulders, fighting back tears, knowing the season was finished, the goal unreached. They had lost for only the second time, finished the season 37-2. But it was the wrong game to lose, the game that would have given the school the sporting respect it seeks.

For Carolina, with so much history and six national championships, there was redemption. A year ago, the Tar Heels were beaten in the NCAA final with a second to play by Villanova. This time, it was Carolina’s turn.

“One of the things we talked about,” said Roy Williams, the Carolina coach, “was whether this group was tough enough. I think they were tough enough tonight.”

Tough enough and relentless enough. Defense wins, we’re told, and defense means persistence, tenacity and resilience. Carolina shot 30 percent in the first half, 35 percent for the game. But it battered and badgered Gonzaga after intermission. The Zags shot just 27 percent in the second half.

You can’t lose if the other team doesn’t score. In the last 1:40 of the most important game in the Zags’ history, they didn’t score.

They had a turnover, missed a jumper and had a shot blocked. The one-point lead became a one-point deficit, then a three-point deficit. Then five. It was over.

Przemek Karnowski, the senior, the 7-footer from Poland, usually so capable under the basket with his twists and turns and hook shots, was a sad 1-for-8. If Carolina didn’t know how to get the ball in the basket, it did know how to keep the Zags from getting it in.

“We got good shots,” insisted Mark Few, the Zags' coach. “We had the ball where we wanted.”

Except going through the net.

“(Nigel Williams-Goss) is such a warrior. He blew his ankle and he still was able to get a shot. The kid’s just a flat-out winner, but we never would have gotten to this point without him. He’s about the only guy we could call on who’s really deliberate down the stretch there. We needed a defensive rebound after they missed on a shot that ended up bging a jump ball. That was a back-breaker.”

Gonzaga never had been this far before, never had made it to college basketball’s ultimate week, to the Final Four. So many doubts. So many questions. Still, the Zags couldn’t climb the full way.

“I think we’ll settle in here,” said Few about the Gonzaga program. "I’m hoping it will settle in and we’ll feel better tomorrow and in the days to come.

“It doesn’t feel that great right now for a couple of reasons. You’re on the brink of a national championship. You want to give that to your time. But at the same time, the thing that crushes you is you won’t get to coach these guys again.”

There will be other guys and other teams. Gonzaga can only wish for another result.


One game for Zags: So near, so far

By Art Spander

GLENDALE, Ariz. — One game now. So near. So far. A place Mark Few never had been. A place Gonzaga never had been. All the hopes, the disappointments, the slights, the dreams, distilled to one game.

The Zags have left base camp. Finally. The summit looms. That they’ve made it this far is more than many believed possible. The Zags, the little school that couldn’t but this magnificent season of 2016-17 certainly proved it can.

They’re 37-1, the best record in college basketball. They beat physical South Carolina, losing a big lead but not their poise, winning 77-73 Saturday night at University of Phoenix Stadium. The school that never could get to the Final Four is now in the final one.

The win had Zags coach Mark Few, a minister’s son, doing handstands in the locker room. The win had Gonzaga, named for a 16th-century Jesuit priest who died caring for epidemic victims, moving into the big time and out of that silly designation, mid-major.

“They’re always on me to show emotion after a win,” said Few of his acrobatics. “So that’s my fairly weak effort of showing emotion. I got out of it with a healthy rotator cuff and healthy Achilles, so I think I’m in a good place.”

Gonzaga, in Spokane, Wash., alma mater of Bing Crosby, with its roster of recruits and transfers, with its stress on defense, with its critics who insist the Zags — well, the official nickname is Bulldogs — play a weak schedule, is at worst going to be the No. 2 team in the country and very well could end up as No. 1.

Gonzaga gave up a 14-point second-half lead in four minutes — or, more correctly, South Carolina overcame that lead with defense and shooting. And then the Zags suddenly were down by two, 67-65, with 7:06 to play. Then all the coaching and hustle and skill came forward, and Gonzaga regained control. Zach Collins, a 7-foot freshman, made the most unlikely of baskets for a 7-footer, a three-pointer. Winners find a way.

“Our late-game execution,” said Few. “That’s been a topic of speculation because we haven’t really had many close games. But we practiced it a lot. And I mean the guys executed it perfectly down the last four minutes. So I'm really proud of them for that. And just ecstatic — to be still playing the last game of the year is just crazy cool.”

Few is 54, and you don’t picture or hear him saying “crazy cool,” but he does. He’s been at Gonzaga 18 years. He’s been chased by larger schools — UCLA was interested at one time — but seems satisfied and rooted.

Basketball certainly isn’t football, a sport that Gonzaga, like most smaller schools in America, have dropped. Get yourself two or three excellent players, one of them specifically a point guard, and several other competent ones willing to play roles and listen to instructions, and you can win a title, no matter the total enrollment.

Nigel Williams-Goss spent two years on the other side of the Cascades, at the U. of Washington in Seattle. He left, then heard Few’s call. The man can shoot. He had 23 points Saturday night, high for the game. He also can orate.

“The journey we’ve been on has been unreal,” said Williams-Goss. “We just never stopped believing, and we’ve had the utmost confidence in ourselves the entire season.

“I guess they were saying we were the most nervous team in the tournament. And you know we heard everything all year, haven’t played tight games, were not tough enough ... No one’s here by accident. You have 37 wins in a college season, that’s unbelievable. We’re here to win it.”

Williams-Goss and Collins are roommates. “He told me,” Williams-Goss said of Collins, the freshman from Las Vegas, “he wouldn’t want to be playing against (himself) today. And coach says all year we just can’t talk the talk, we gotta walk the walk.”

Hard to say about walking, but Collins made that go-ahead three-pointer, had six blocks and ended up with 14 points and 13 rebounds.

“He loves being part of the team,” Few said of Collins. “We trust him at the end of the game.”


Newsday (N.Y.): March Madness: Gonzaga heads to its first Final Four with victory over Xavier

By Art Spander
Special to Newsday

SAN JOSE, Calif. — All the years. And for Gonzaga the tears. “Tears of joy,” from Mark Few after at last making it to basketball’s promised land, the Final Four.

Gonzaga, named for a saint, Aloysius Gonzaga, nicknamed the Bulldogs but known as the “Zags,” had qualified for the NCAA basketball tournament 19 previous times and never got past the regionals. Until Saturday.

Read the full story here.

Copyright © 2017 Newsday. All rights reserved.


Kris Jenkins ends the college basketball season with a bang

By Art Spander

HOUSTON — Did he know? Did Kris Jenkins know when that ball left his hands, the ball that would sail through the rim and into the net with 0:00 on the clock, would win a national championship for Villanova and leave a North Carolina team in disbelief and tears?

“When you let it go ... ” asked Jim Nantz, holding a microphone. There was a pause.

“I knew it was good,” said Jenkins.

And so it was, a three-pointer that would give Villanova a 77-74 victory over the favored Tar Heels and an NCAA championship.

You want drama? This game at NRG Stadium had it. You want elation? This game had it. For Villanova. You want dejection? This game also had it — for Carolina, the school with a great basketball history, the school of Michael Jordan, who was in the stands.

What a wild, wonderful conclusion to the college basketball season of 2015–16, a season that some called mediocre because there wasn’t a dominant team, as Kentucky had been a year earlier, and because the tournament was a swarm of confusions — right until the final ticks of the clock.

Two days earlier, the semifinals had been boring, one-sided, Villanova setting a record by beating Oklahoma by 44 points and North Carolina sweeping past Syracuse by 17. See, said the basketball junkies, we told you. A bad season topped off by a bad tournament.

But just like that on Monday evening — dare we use the phrase “one shining moment"? — the whole basketball season bounced as no one foresaw, and the title turned into a memory that will be cherished by Villanova — winning its second championship — and despised by Carolina, which was unable to win its sixth.

Villanova led by three, when after a scramble and an attempt to pass, Carolina’s Marcus Paige hit an off-balance jumper to tie the game, 74-74, with 4.7 seconds to play. Surely, this was going to go on for a while.

“We play defense, the game goes into overtime and it’s ours," said Paige. "(But) it didn’t work out. Kris is one of the best three-point shooters.”

Jenkins, a junior, had four fouls and had been on the bench (he played just 21 of the 40 minutes), but he wasn’t flustered as time ran out.

“I think every shot is going in,” he said. “So that one was no different.”

Except it meant a championship for Villanova and heartbreak for North Carolina, which had trailed 67-57 with 5:29 left and then rallied. Only to lose.

“This is a difficult time period as a coach,” said Carolina’s Roy Williams, who was trying for a third title. “You fought so hard throughout the course of the season to have a chance to win a national championship.

“We couldn’t get the ball to go in the basket in the second half. We shot 34 percent. They shot 58 percent.”

One reason may be a Villanova defense that is everywhere and turns the other team’s misses into its own baskets.

Villanova coach Jay Wright was more bewildered than joyful at game’s end. He had a sour look, as if he had bit into a lemon.

“I can’t wait to see that look,” said Wright after his first championship. “Because I was just shocked. We have an end-of-the-game situation play. We put it in (Ryan) Arcidiacono’s hands. He made the perfect pass. And Kris Jenkins lives for that moment.”

That moment is one that made the season for college basketball — and for the Villanova Wildcats.


Bleacher Report: Horrific Accidents Driving Reserve Coleman to Inspire Tar Heels

By Art Spander
Senior Analyst

HOUSTON — He probably won’t get on court for North Carolina in what will be his final college game. You could look at the career of Justin Coleman, a perennial backup guard for the Tar Heels, and say it hasn’t been very impressive. Except for one thing: It’s impressive he even had a career.

When he was in high school, playing AAU ball, May 11, 2010, Coleman was tripped and fell into a wall, incurring a broken neck. Doctors said he never would play again. But play he did.

Read the full story here.

Copyright © 2016 Bleacher Report, Inc. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. All Rights Reserved.