Gonzaga Marches Into Its First Final Four by Routing Xavier


Until Saturday, when top-seeded Gonzaga clobbered Xavier, 83-59, in the West Regional final, Few had won the most N.C.A.A. tournament games (24) among coaches who had never reached the national semifinals.

This best version of Few’s best team played with fury and purpose, burying Xavier’s bid to become the fourth No. 11 seed to reach the Final Four. Gonzaga (36-1) made a dozen 3-pointers and disrupted the Musketeers near the rim with a fierceness that Xavier had yet to encounter during its unlikely stampede to the round of 8.

As a measure of Gonzaga’s offensive efficiency, consider that it allowed more points before halftime than it had in any other game this season — 39 — and it still led by 10. That lead ballooned to 17 less than five minutes into the second half, and although Xavier’s fans chanted, “We believe,” they had no better luck forestalling the inevitable than its players did.

Few has coached some superb teams, but none like this one, which has coalesced despite the fact that five members of its eight-man rotation did not even wear a Gonzaga uniform last season. One transfer, Nigel Williams-Goss, led Gonzaga with 23 points, and another, Johnathan Williams, added 19 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocks and was selected as the region’s most outstanding player.

The arrivals of all these talented players, accustomed to taking many shots and scoring loads of points, could have crashed the program, but the players subjugated their egos. Williams-Goss praised Josh Perkins, another point guard, for welcoming him.

“We know how good you are,” Perkins said of the team’s attitude, “but we can be so much better together.”

And here the Bulldogs are, going to the Final Four, where they will play next Saturday in Glendale, Ariz., against the winner of Sunday’s East Regional final between Florida and South Carolina.

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Sean O’Mara of Xavier being defended by Zach Collins of Gonzaga on Saturday.

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Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

To get there, Gonzaga overwhelmed a university that resembled itself — a small Jesuit school with no Final Four experience where basketball, not football, drives the sporting culture.

“There’s no pro team; there’s no football team,” Perkins said of Spokane, Wash., home to Gonzaga. “We’re pretty much it. We’re the celebrities; we’re the role models. It’s fun, but you’ve got to win basketball games, or it’s not so good.”

On Perkins’s first day on campus, he was recognized at a Chipotle restaurant. That introduced him to the intensity of Gonzaga basketball fandom, which was on display not only at San Jose’s SAP Center — where fans packed several of the lower sections — but also back in Spokane. After the game, players in the locker room passed around a cellphone showing scenes of people there jumping around.

“Spokane’s lit!” someone shouted.

To Perkins’s point, things have been good at Gonzaga far more often than they have not — 28 victories last season, 35 the season before, 29 in 2013-14, 32 in 2012-13. Aside from Gonzaga, only Wisconsin and North Carolina have reached the round of 16 the past three years. That consistency is the envy of so many programs, but that popular benchmark of greatness — the Final Four — had managed to elude the Bulldogs.

They lost in their two previous regional finals, in 1999 and 2015, when they were underdogs, and the only other time they were seeded No. 1, in 2013, they lost to Wichita State in the second round.

Gonzaga’s strong alumni base remains close to the program. Former players, like Kelly Olynyk, Jeremy Pargo and Matt Santangelo, have sent out encouraging text messages: “Hey, we couldn’t do it, so you guys do it.”

The Bulldogs did it by silencing a team that had trampled over one favorite after another, baffling sixth-seeded Maryland, third-seeded Florida State and, on Thursday, second-seeded Arizona with impenetrable defense. Gonzaga detonated that defense early and often.

“I mean, they’re really good,” Xavier Coach Chris Mack said. “Sometimes, you just lose to a better team.”

That was about as close as Mack has gotten this postseason to acknowledging that a better team existed than his Musketeers, who proved they were far better than their seeding might suggest.

On Tuesday, before they flew to San Jose, Mack showed players a video clip of confetti cascading onto a court.

He asked how badly they wanted to experience that themselves, and then a ladder appeared. The Musketeers acted out a traditional net-cutting celebration, hooting and hollering as if in a packed arena instead of their auxiliary gym. They then placed the strands in a jar that contained the detritus of another motivational ploy, the ashes from the burning of February calendars that the staff had printed — with the results from Xavier’s five straight losses that month, all to teams that went on to make the N.C.A.A. tournament.

Mack tried willing that act into a sequel here, but soon after the buzzer sounded Saturday, after Gonzaga’s players danced at center court, it was his counterpart who climbed the ladder. Few clipped the net, turned to the crowd and hinted at the possibilities in Arizona.

“Might as well win it,” he said.

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