GLENDALE, Ariz. — The play call out of the huddle wassimple to articulate, butdelicate to execute: Gonzaga wanted to foul. There’s a lot that goes into that, even though it seems like the one basketball skill even a lay person could accomplish at a high level. Hit someone, draw a whistle? No problem there.
Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga’s All-American point guard and unquestioned team leader, looked around as the final seconds lapsed inthe national semifinal against South Carolina, the Zags protecting a 3-point lead, and saw his teammates weren't following their coach’s instructions.
So he reiterated them.
“I was screaming at my teammates to foul because I saw they weren’t fouling,” Williams-Goss said. “But it actually worked out because we fouled later in the clock.”
The enduringbasketball debate — whether it’s smarter to foul on purpose to prevent a game-tying 3-pointeror merely lock down defensively and hope for the best— was given perhaps its most prominent airing in a decade at the close of the first Final Four game on Saturday at University of Phoenix Stadium. It became a 77-73 Gonzaga victory that sent the Bulldogs on to play for the NCAA Championship.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few, as has been his habit in recent seasons, ordered the foul: not before sevenseconds remained, and definitely not in the act of firing a 3. However, when guard Josh Perkins reached across the DMZ with 3.2 seconds left, into the personal space of South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell, he had only a single goal at that moment: keep Thornwell from getting his shot.
If he got the ball, great. If he fouled, OK, so long as it was before Thornwell went into his shooting motion.
He didn’t get the ball.
Perkins was fine with that. He was fine with not scoring a single point in 22 minutes. He was fine with fouling out on that play, because his teammates perfectly managed what little time remained. He is here, like all the Zags, to win the NCAA title.
“We said it from the first time we came together,” Williams-Goss said. “If our goal isn’t to win a national championship, we’re selling ourselves short.”
For all but a single stretch, during which South Carolina scored 16 consecutive points to recoverfrom a 14-point deficit and briefly grabthe lead, the Gonzaga guards played with the belief they were the team that should be playing Monday night.
“It might be your last 40 minutes on the court,” said junior guard Silas Melson. “So you have to play like it.”
Melson confidently struck with two 3s in the first 8:05, an assertion that his teammates would be fine with if they played with equal aggression. Shooter Jordan Matthews hit three times from 3-point range in the first half. And Williams-Goss controlled of the game, illustrating the difference between a team that has a consummate point guard and one that has a gifted wing, P.J. Dozier, still converting to the position.
Williams-Goss scored 23 points and passed for 6 assists. And he yelled a bit. When the Gamecocks took their 67-65 lead with 7:06 remaining, he did everything he could to persuade his teammates to continue attacking.
The 3-pointer freshman Zach Collins hit with 6:42 left was not the most beautiful; it caught the flange, deadened and fell into the goal. But then Williams-Goss ran a swe set that produced a slam for 7-foot center Przemek Karnowski, and Collins and Karnowski combined on a picturesquehigh-low feed that made it 72-67.
From there, it was about managing the remaining five minutes. Which the Zags did, right down until they were up 75-72 with 12.7 seconds left.
Foul or defend? Memphis defended in the closing seconds of the 2008 NCAA Championship game against Kansas, whether by design or not, and you all remember Mario Chalmers’ game-tying 3-pointer to force overtime. And if you don’t remember what happened then, allow us to remind you by mentioningKansas coach Bill Self was introduced at halftime of this Final Four game as a 2017 inductee to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Few instructed the Bulldogs to pressure in the backcourt so South Carolina would consume additional time, and then they were to foul. When it finally came, Thornwell went to the line and Gonzaga sent in 6-10 freshman Killian Tillie to help with rebounding. Karnowski was available, but Tillie was chosen because he’s more nimble, more likely to get his hands on the ball if it bounced wildly.
Tillie was the player who quickly collected the rebound when Thornwell missed the second foul shot. And Tilliemade both free throws to clinch the game.
“This is what frustrates me, when people tell you what you need to do, is you have to rebound the free throw,” Few said. “And we have been bad at rebounding free throws. So, I mean, in my mind I was thinking play it out. But then also I just … I went with my gut and said let’s foul if we can.
“I thought waited a little long to do that, quite honestly. But Perk went out and grabbed him before he was in the shooting motion. As it turned out, you couldn’t be any better, you know?”