(Photo and story: GONZAGA ATHLETICS)
Their star guard was outstanding. Their big men dominated inside. Still, it came down to some last-second strategy for Gonzaga to move on to the NCAA Tournament championship game for the first time.
Nigel Williams-Goss scored 23 points, Gonzaga's big men combined for 27 and the Bulldogs kept South Carolina from taking a game-tying shot in a 77-73 victory Saturday night in a matchup of first-time teams at the Final Four.
''Just an awesome, awesome basketball game, with just how hard both teams competed,'' Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. ''It took everything we had to hold them off and come back.''
''That's my job is to go in and rim protect,'' said Collins, who had 14 points and 13 rebounds. ''I had four fouls today. But I thought, you know, getting those blocked shots would help us.''
Gonzaga (37-1), the top seed in the West region of the NCAA Tournament, will face the winner between North Carolina and Oregon for the title on Monday night.
''To be playing the last game of the year, that's crazy cool,'' Few said.
Williams-Goss missed a shot with 12.7 seconds left and South Carolina rebounded and called a timeout, trailing 75-72. South Carolina passed the ball around and Gonzaga fouled Sindarius Thornwell before he could shoot with 3.5 seconds left. Thornwell made the first free throw and missed the second on purpose in hopes of his teammates grabbing an offensive rebound. Killian Tillie rebounded for Gonzaga, was fouled and made two free throws to cement the game.
''We had been practicing it all year and we always want to foul under 6 (seconds),'' Few said. ''Josh Perkins did a job being really patient and not fouling on the shot. The second part is you've got to get the rebound, and that's what's been difficult for us at times. They executed great.''
Thornwell said the idea was to get in position for one last quick shot.
''The plan was to miss it left and hopefully Chris (Silva) could tap it out to somebody,'' he said.
Williams-Goss, a second-team All-American, led the Bulldogs to a 14-point lead in the second half but it disappeared quickly as the Gamecocks (26-11) went on a 14-point run to grab a 67-65 lead with about 7 minutes to play.
''When things got tough we banded together and pulled through,'' said Williams-Goss, who had six assists and a brief injury scare after turning an ankle underneath the basket.
''There was no way I was going to come out of the game. This is the last two games of the season,'' Williams-Goss said. ''Now we're 40 minutes from a championship.''
Collins and Karnowksi then accounted for the next 7 points, including a 3-pointer by Collins and a thundering dunk by Karnowski.
South Carolina still wasn't done. The seventh-seeded Gamecocks scored 5 straight to get within 74-72 with just over 2 minutes left.
''Since the beginning of the season that's what we worked for, moments like this,'' Silva said. ''And we try to do our best to respond the way we learn how to respond.''
PJ Dozier led the Gamecocks with 17 points and Thornwell, the leading scorer in the NCAA Tournament at 25.8 points per game during the first four rounds, finished with 15 on 4-for-12 shooting after starting slow.
''They just crowd the paint,'' Thornwell said. ''They forced me to pass it out on my drives. And just protecting the rim real well.''
South Carolina: The Gamecocks entered the tournament having last won a game in 1973. They had four wins to reach the Final Four, including victories over the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 seeds in the East region.
Gonzaga: The Bulldogs now have a chance to play for a title after already getting further than ever before in the NCAA Tournament. Gonzaga had made three Elite Eights without advancing to the Final Four.
The teams combined for 14 blocked shots, eight by Gonzaga. Collins had six and Silas Melson had two for the Bulldogs. Silva had three for the Gamecocks, while Thornwell had two and Dozier had one.
Gonzaga, which had a school-record 12 3-pointers in the regional final win over Xavier, went 9 for 19 from beyond the arc Saturday. Jordan Mathews was 4 for 8 while Williams-Goss and Melson had two each and Collins had one.
Silva had 13 rebounds for the Gamecocks. ... South Carolina shot 37.9 percent (25 of 66) for the game while the Bulldogs were 29 of 60 (48.3 percent). ... Gonzaga committed 12 turnovers and the Gamecocks had just five.
Gonzaga meets North Carolina for the national championship on Monday night. Game time is 6:20pm and it will be televised on CBS.
GONZAGA vs NORTH CAROLINA SERIES HISTORY:
The Bulldogs and Tar Heels have met twice before, with each team winning once. The Zags beat UNC 82-74 in 2007. North Carolina beat Gonzaga 98-77 in the 2009 NCAA Tournament Sweet 16.