Gonzaga Silences Skeptics for Good as Complete Performance Keys Title-Game Berth

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterApril 2, 2017

Nigel Williams-Goss is elated after Gonzaga advances to the title game.
Nigel Williams-Goss is elated after Gonzaga advances to the title game.Associated Press

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Gonzaga's Nigel Williams-Goss stormed out of the locker room on his way to the national championship Saturday, and he had a message for anyone who would listen.

"They said we couldn't close a game," Williams-Goss told teammate Zach Collins, pounding his fist into his hand. "They said we weren't tough. They said we were nervous. They said we played in a weak conference. They said we weren't battle-tested."

Do they like their crow with salt or pepper?

The doubters can shut up now. Gonzaga is one win away from its first national championship after a 77-73 win over South Carolina that answered every question they apparently asked.

This is the team that has crushed every stupid cliche ever uttered about Gonzaga, making up for silly narratives created by Mark Few's past teams that couldn't quite get to the final weekend.

The rest of the Zags celebrate the win over South Carolina.
The rest of the Zags celebrate the win over South Carolina.David J. Phillip/Associated Press/Associated Press

Time to throw the Adam Morrison crying memes in the trash.

Time to stop crushing this program for its 2013 loss as a No. 1 seed to Wichita State in the round of 32.

And well past time to quit calling this a mid-major program.

"It's not 1997 anymore," South Carolina head coach Frank Martin said. "They were Cinderella and all that pretty stuff in '97. They've been in this thing for 20 consecutive years. They're as high major as high major can get."

This performance belongs at the front of the Gonzaga file and showed the country what was true all season.

The Zags are the most complete team in college basketball. And the only real competition for that title, not coincidentally, will be Gonzaga's opponent Monday night, the North Carolina Tar Heels.

But the Zags got the first shot at University of Phoenix Stadium to show they have it all—guard play, inside scoring, three-point shooting, depth, an elite defense and one of the best coaches in the game—against a team that had made simple acts of basketball extremely difficult the last two weeks.

Williams-Goss is the star—the one who is showing up on All-American lists—but even he knows this team is built from the inside out.

Freshman Zach Collins put in a monster game for Gonzaga at the Final Four.
Freshman Zach Collins put in a monster game for Gonzaga at the Final Four.Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

Gonzaga has the best front line in college basketball with two of the most efficient back-to-the-basket scorers in senior Przemek Karnowski and freshman Zach Collins, and the coaching know-how to use them effectively.

The Zags knew running sets against the Gamecocks would be difficult, so their initial plan on almost every possession was get the ball to the post immediately.

"You're playing a team who you literally can't swing the ball against," Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said. "If we come down and throw it into the post, now we can attack it from the inside and I don't think they've faced that very much

Gonzaga's coaches also knew that if post touches were the key to beating that defense, they might as well double down. So they went often to a lineup they rarely played together in the tournament with both Karnowski and his backup, Collins, on the floor together.

The freshman made his coaches look smart with his best game of the season. He recorded his first double-double of his career (14 points and 13 rebounds) and had six blocks and one assist.

"He isn't a backup; a lot of times he's a pickup," Lloyd said. 

Before Saturday, Collins had averaged 7.8 points and 5.3 rebounds in the tournament and played only 17.8 minutes per game. He told Williams-Goss before tipoff that "I wouldn't want to be playing against me today."

Not only was he prophetic, Collins was the answer to multiple questions that they may have asked ahead of this Final Four.

South Carolina star Sindarius Thornwell said this week Gonzaga was the most nervous team in the country—adding his name to the doubters list.

After the Zags led comfortably for much of the second half, the Gamecocks came storming back with a 16-0 run that gave them their first lead, 67-65.

This was exactly the moment Thornwell had banked on, when nerves typically get the best of teams on this stage.

Collins provided a bucket and comic relief when he had the guts to take a 17-footer with Gonzaga trailing for the first time. The ball died on the back of the rim and fell in.

"It was one of those shots he missed it so bad it went in," Lloyd said.

Collins was the best player on the floor as Gonzaga took back control, and the biggest of his six blocks came when he swatted away a Rakym Felder layup that would have tied the game.

SCAR's Rakym Felder challenges Gonzaga's Zach Collins at the rim.
SCAR's Rakym Felder challenges Gonzaga's Zach Collins at the rim.David J. Phillip/Associated Press

South Carolina's defense got all the headlines this week, but it was third-best nationally, behind Gonzaga's No. 1 unit, per KenPom.com.

While the Gamecocks defend with constant pressure, the Zags thrive on contesting shots and giving up nothing easy at the rim. With Karnowski and Collins together, the paint became a no-fly zone.

"I think [rim protection] has been a sneaky little secret of Gonzaga since we've gotten Przemek," Lloyd said.

Lloyd is right in that Gonzaga's rim protection is often overlooked—probably because the Zags don't typically block a ton of shots—but that's the beauty of this group.

The pieces fit together so well and seem to be a part of Few's vision.

Few and his staff have never really gone after McDonald's All-Americans—Collins was their first out of high school, and he was a late-bloomer. Few gets them after it doesn't work somewhere else.

That was the case for Williams-Goss, who played on two mediocre teams at Washington and then looked for where he could win. He finished with 23 points and six assists in the box score, and he notched a huge assist this offseason when he texted back and forth with former Cal sharpshooter Jordan Mathews about joining the Zags.

Jordan Mathews was another crucial piece for Gonzaga on Saturday.
Jordan Mathews was another crucial piece for Gonzaga on Saturday.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

"If you go back to those texts, we talked about a national championship," Williams-Goss said. "We didn't shy away from it."

Adding a knockdown shooter was the final piece to the puzzle, and Mathews, a grad transfer who could play right away, buried four huge threes against the Gamecocks.

Few is as good as it gets at roster construction, and this is his Sistine Chapel with three transfers mixed in with program guys he recruited.

Gonzaga got ahead of other mid-majors by putting money behind the program and then Few and his staff's recruiting smarter than their peers. They recruit better overseas than anyone, and they've figured out how to play the transfer game better than anyone else.

Now they can also compete for 5-star guys, and that should be the case even more if Few nets the program's first title.

But what gets lost in noise from Gonzaga's failure to reach this point in the past is that Few is one of the game's best tacticians as well.

This roster has allowed him to show off the goods, and now he has his moment in this run. His last move Saturday night turned what look like an accident into a brilliant maneuver.

Few believes in fouling up threes, and his team cooperated when Josh Perkins fouled Thornwell with 3.5 seconds left.

Perkins did not mean to foul, but the officials were looking for anything that appeared to be an attempt because Few had told the crew that the Zags intended to foul.

The strategy worked out perfectly when Thornwell missed his second free throw on purpose and Killian Tillie grabbed the game-sealing rebound.

Now the Zags are one win away from forever shutting up those in the they crowd.

"We've heard it all," Williams-Goss said.

Win on Monday night, and all that screaming will no longer be necessary.

               

C.J. Moore covers college basketball and football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @CJMooreBR.

Related

    Oklahoma Nabs 4-Star Big Man Victor Iwuakor

    College Basketball logo
    College Basketball

    Oklahoma Nabs 4-Star Big Man Victor Iwuakor

    Scott Phillips
    via CollegeBasketballTalk

    Vols Land 5-Star Guard Josiah James

    College Basketball logo
    College Basketball

    Vols Land 5-Star Guard Josiah James

    Tim Daniels
    via Bleacher Report

    Gonzaga Already Eyeing 2021 5-Star Big Nathan Bittle

    Gonzaga Basketball logo
    Gonzaga Basketball

    Gonzaga Already Eyeing 2021 5-Star Big Nathan Bittle

    CBB Today Staff
    via CBB Today

    Div. III St. Joseph Officially Hires Jim Calhoun

    College Basketball logo
    College Basketball

    Div. III St. Joseph Officially Hires Jim Calhoun

    ESPN.com
    via ESPN.com