SALT LAKE CITY — Down a hallway here at EnergySolutions Arena, somebody in the Gonzaga entourage mouthed the operative four words of Zag Nation on this harrowing afternoon:
“We ain’t the one.”
No, they ain’t the one. Through 114 games and 29 seasons of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament featuring No. 1 seeds against 16s, the scoreboard is now 114-0, in favor of the big boys.
But only barely, as the top-seeded Zags were taken to the wire by an upstart Southern University team, Gonzaga finally surviving, 64-58, because its guards came through down the stretch.
Kelly Olynyk had 21 points with a determined second half and Kevin Pangos added 16. But, afterward, Pangos didn’t want to entertain any notion of what the national ridicule would have been like had the Zags not moved on to face Wichita State here Saturday.
“I don’t think about that,” he said firmly. “It doesn’t matter to me. We care about what happens in this locker room.”
Several feet away sat Elias Harris, who was hounded into a 2-for-10 shooting game by a Southern man-to-man defense that tried to deny everything inside.
“I don’t care how we got it,” he said of the victory. “Nobody’s gonna ask us in a couple of years how we got it.”
They got it because Pangos and running mate Gary Bell Jr. were clutch in the final moments.
“Can you believe those two are only sophomores?” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few on the interview podium.
It was a game in which Gonzaga three times seemed on the brink of separating from the Jaguars, but never could make it stick. The first of those was at 7-0, just a few minutes in. But Southern, with a perimeter-oriented attack, scored eight straight. As Bell would put it later, that told Gonzaga: “It’s a game now. We’ve got to actually play.”
Gonzaga led only 34-31 at half, and after establishing Olynyk in the second half, seemed to have gained a handle on it midway through, leading 52-41. But the Zags endured four empty possessions and Southern kept coming.
Guard Derick Beltran (6-4) was especially troublesome. On one possession, Beltran jab-stepped deep on the right wing, did it again and with Bell in his face, splashed a splay-legged three-pointer. Minutes later, Bell was called for a foul on a deep two, as the legs of the two players made contact.
“I felt he was kicking his foot out every time he shot,” Bell said.
With 4:08 left, forward Brandon Moore downed two free throws to tie it at 54, completing a 13-2 run, and the building was suddenly favoring the underdog.
“To be honest with you, it was a surprise to me, here in Salt Lake,” said Few, referring to a shorter trip for Gonzaga, and that it’s where GU great John Stockton played pro ball. “(But) if I wasn’t coaching on the other sideline, they would be a tough team not to root for, you know?”
When it counted, the game belonged to the Gonzaga guards. With 3:21 left and the game tied at 56, Bell circled back on top and buried a three to give the Zags the lead for good.
Then came the Bell foul on Beltran, one of several whistles that puzzled the Gonzaga bench, and two free throws.
So with 1:54 left and the shot clock dying, Pangos found himself open in front of the GU bench, rocked back and drained a three from the corner for a 62-58 lead.
“I was actually trying to get the call on a drive, didn’t get the call, stepped back and realized I was open,” said Pangos.
The Zags toughed out two more Southern possessions, one a three that rimmed out, and Pangos’ two free throws with 15 seconds left ended the scoring.
Pangos admitted to feeling the walls were closing in as Southern was threatening and the crowd was engaged.
“Not gonna lie, it crossed my mind,” he said. “For myself, I had to quickly erase it. Once you start thinking that way, when things don’t go in your favor, that’s when you’re in trouble. I quickly got that out of my head and just focused on what we had to do to win.”
It worked, in a game where not everything else did for Gonzaga.
There was a palpable feeling of a near-death experience in the Gonzaga locker room. It’s not the recommended way to operate — being more relieved you didn’t lose than happy you won — but that’s the inevitability of the polar 1/16 world.
Gonzaga’s 32nd win in a record-setting season came on a day the Zags almost set another one.