By Mark Alewine
Sports Capital Journalism Program
GLENDALE, Ariz. — When Przemek Karnowski fell to the floor, holding his head with both hands, Gonzaga’s hope for a national championship, at least for a moment, appeared to fall with him.
Freshman Zach Collins, however, was there to catch it.
The Bulldogs held off a resilient South Carolina team for a 77-73 victory at University of Phoenix Stadium to advance to the first national title game in school history. Gonzaga (37-1) set a school-record for victories, led by Collins, a 7-foot freshman whose 14 points, 13 rebounds and six blocked shots reinforced his team’s depth under the basket at critical times.
They withstood a first-half eye injury to Karnowski, the 7-1 senior, plus a 16-0 second-half South Carolina run and a relentless challenge from the Gamecocks for the historic win.
South Carolina (26-11) had reached the Final Four for the first time in school history as a No. 7 seed in the East. “So proud of these guys,” said South Carolina coach Frank Martin. “Like I’ve been saying for the last three weeks, the harder it gets, the tougher they stand. And every once in a while you get put down on the mat and you better have courage to get off your back, and these guys do it every single time.”
The Bulldogs became the first team from the West Coast Conference to reach a NCAA final since Bill Russell and the University of San Francisco Dons defeated Iowa to complete a 29-0 season in 1956.
Gonzaga’s conference membership, and the one-sided victories that marked its greatest season, had raised questions about how the Bulldogs would react to the stress of a high-stakes game. Once again, they provided an encouraging answer.
“I was just really, really proud of our guys, our late-game execution,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few. “I think that’s been a topic of conversation, because we haven’t really had many close games. But we practiced it a lot. And I mean, the guys executed it perfectly, especially down the last four minutes.”
The Bulldogs will meet the North Carolina Tar Heels, who defeated Oregon, 77-76. The combined margin of victory of 5 points was the smallest in two national semifinal games since Connecticut defeated Duke and Georgia Tech beat Oklahoma State by a total of 3 points in 2004.
Karnowski recovered from the eye injury to score 13 points with five rebounds.
Nigel Williams-Goss led all scorers with 23 points, on 9-of-16 shooting, with six assists. But it was Collins, who did not start a game and averaged 9.9 points in 17.2 minutes, who came up big when the Zags needed it most.
“It’s incredible,” Collins said. “I knew I wasn’t making plays like I was the first two games so I wanted to come out and just do everything I could to give us a chance to win. We have a resilient team.”
Collins’ 14 points, on 6-of-10 shooting, equaled his highest total in the last 20 games. The 13 rebounds and six blocks were career highs. His clutch play when Karnowski went out with 5:12 left in the first half changed the game for Gonzaga and set the tone for the rest of the afternoon.
“He’s been playing well for us the entire season,” Karnowski said. “Whenever I go to the bench and he gets in, our team doesn’t drop a bit. So he’s been huge for us.”
To Collins, though, stepping up is second nature. As Karnowski struggled with blurry vision, Collins finished out the half with three rebounds, a field goal and a huge block on South Carolina guard Hassani Gravett to swing momentum to the Bulldogs going into halftime.
“I just have to play the role I’ve been playing all year,” Collins said. “I have to come in and make sure there’s no downgrade when he (Karnowski) goes to the bench and comes off the court. That’s my job. I just knew I needed to come in, make plays, block shots, rebound, and use my length.”
Collins and Karnowski, who returned after halftime, were asked to step up again midway through the second half. Up by 14, 65-51, with 10:55 to play, Collins went to the bench with three fouls. His departure opened the door for the Gamecocks to take control with a 16-0 run, with sophomore guard P.J. Dozier scoring 6 points and sophomore forward Chris Silva adding 5, to take a 67-65 lead with 7:06 to go.
Few had sent Collins back in with the lead down to 2 and 8:29 to go. “He just kept saying we need to post up hard and get the rock,” Collins said. “With Przemek being such a great passer and me being able to pass as well, we knew that we can make plays out of the low post and get the offense off balance.”
Collins answered his coach’s call by blocking a Silva shot and later making a 3-point shot for a 68-67 Gonzaga lead with 6:42 to play. The Bulldogs never trailed again. Collins’ back-to-back defensive rebounds set up Karnowski under the basket for consecutive scores and a 72-67 lead.
“Z-bo (Collins) made a really good decision with the high-low, and then he got the three,” Karnowski said. “I think he was huge for us in this game and also this season.”
Collins dominated the paint for the rest of the game. In the final 6:23, Collins added five rebounds to his career high and capped off his performance with a resounding block on South Carolina superstar Sindarius Thornwell.
“Zach had a crazy game,” said freshman Killian Tillie. “Defensively, it was amazing. Nobody could score on him. Offensively, it was cooking. That was good for us.”
One more victory would make Gonzaga the first one-loss team to win a national championship since North Carolina State in 1974. “Just ecstatic to be still playing,” Few said. “And to be playing the last game of the year is just crazy cool.”