By Mark Alewine
Sports Capital Journalism Program
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Nigel Williams-Goss crouched in the south end of the court, staring at the floor. He was alone, his freshly-sprained ankle throbbing in pain, while North Carolina celebrated on the opposite side of the floor.
Just 7.2 seconds remained in Gonzaga’s magical season, and in a championship game years in the making.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few walked to his star player and put his arm around him. The reality was setting in. The Bulldogs were going home just short of a championship, and Few’s All-American point guard was feeling the weight of it sink in.
“I mean, it’s tough,” Few said in the post-game press conference. “I’ve just been with him (Williams-Goss) for the last ten minutes trying to console him. He’s such a ferocious competitor.”
The Bulldogs fell to North Carolina in the national championship, Monday night, 71-65, at University of Phoenix Stadium. It was Gonzaga’s first trip to college basketball’s final game of the season, and with 1:55 to go in the game, it seemed like the Bulldogs would leave as winners.
Williams-Goss went on an 11 point scoring spree in just 2:41 to give Gonzaga a 65-63 lead. The Bulldogs, who made just 33.9 percent of their shots, had struggled for the entire night, but they had a chance and the lead with their best scorer leading the way.
Then Williams-Goss sprained his already weakened ankle with 1:25 left. Whatever hope the Bulldogs still had slipped through their fingers as their point guard tried his best to play through the pain.
The Gonzaga locker room was quiet after the game. No tears. No anger. No emotion. Just stunned disbelief. The Bulldogs held North Carolina to one of its worst games all season, 35.6 percent shooting from the field and 14.8 percent 3-point shooting. The Bulldogs outrebounded North Carolina, 49-46. The Tar Heels had not won a game this season while being outrebounded until Monday night.
The low field goal percentage defense and the effective rebounding should have meant Gonzaga was bringing home its first title in school history. What should have happened kept running through minds of the Gonzaga players.
Freshman forward Zach Collins sat at his locker, eyes glazed over. Forcing the words, he tried to make sense of the moment.
“They have really good shooters that got hot and shot their shots,” Collins said. “We knew they were good shooters, but they got really hot. I thought we did a pretty good job on (Justin) Jackson. They rebounded really well. Even though we won the rebounding, they got some crucial ones at the end. They got and-ones and free throws. I give credit to them for sticking to their game.”
Collins was coming off a career night against South Carolina in the national semifinal, when he finished with 14 points, 13 rebounds, and six blocks. Against North Carolina, though, both Collins, who fouled out with 5:03 left in the second half, and senior Przemek Karnowski were neutralized by the Carolina defense for most of the game.
“I think they weren’t bringing a double team until we started going up for our shot,” Collins said. “So that was tough. I turned the ball over one time when they did that at a crucial part of the game. I probably should’ve just went up. Credit to them. They knew what they were doing.”
In the coming weeks, Collins will face the decision to forego his final years at Gonzaga and enter the NBA draft. He shielded off questions about his future, but it may be the last time he wears “Zags” across his chest.
However, Collins isn’t thinking about that now. He’s still sitting in shock.
Karnowski finished his final game with Gonzaga with his worst shooting performance of his college career. When asked what he’ll remember about the game, Karnowski said it was the misses that will stick with him.
“It wasn’t my best game,” Karnowski said. “We threw the ball in the post and I didn’t deliver.”
Karnowski was held scoreless until 6:24 into the second half, and finished shooting 1-8 from the field.
“They were excellent tonight defensively,” Few said of North Carolina. “They disrupted us. They climbed up in us, kind of drove our offense outside the normal area, as far as our wing touches and our entries. And we didn’t do a good job of probably executing that.
“But it was them,” Few added. “It was their length, it was their physicality, their defensive plan. They did a great job. They won this game with their defense, quite frankly.”
Questionable foul calls hung over the game down the stretch, with 27 called in the second half alone. However, the Gonzaga players resisted the urge to place blame on anyone but themselves.
“I thought the game would be a little more chippy, but they called it the way they called it, a foul is a foul,” junior Silas Melson said. “By any means I’m not going to start complaining about the referee. North Carolina is the one that beat us. They are a great team.”
Karnowski added, “I’m not going to talk about the refs. It was a physical game.”
In the face of a crushing loss, though, Williams-Goss and senior Jordan Matthews stressed the lasting legacy of this historic team.
“So it just kind of left the door open for the group of Zags to come in and do something we were not able to do,” Williams-Goss said.
“We broke that glass ceiling everybody said we couldn’t get over,” Matthews said. “Everybody was saying how the Zags couldn’t get to the Final Four. So we did that.”