March Madness: Final Four dreams burn bright for Thursday's Sweet 16 victors
It was a night that Gonzaga truly showed its steel.
It was a night the music died for Michigan, but not for Xavier.
It was a night that defense had to seal the deal. Oregon needed one last stop to survive. So did Gonzaga. So did Xavier. Kansas, ahead of Purdue by dozens, just needed 40 minutes to finally run out.
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First, Oregon’s Tyler Dorsey, one of the supernovas of the month. He averaged 12.4 points in the regular season and broke 20 only four times. But some button was pushed when the Pac-12 tournament began. In the six postseason games since, he has gone 21-23-23-24-27, and 20 Thursday in the 69-68 win over Michigan, all while shooting 61 percent. Mr. March.
Next, Gonzaga’s Jordan Mathews and a fearless 3-pointer in the last minute to beat West Virginia 61-58. The graduate transfer from California had to hustle last summer to get enough credits for his degree, and thus be eligible to show up in Spokane. “Coming to Gonzaga, I think, was the best decision I ever made,” he said. Especially after Thursday night.
“He’s Big Shot Bob for us,” coach Mark Few said. “He’s not afraid.”
Then, Kansas’ Frank Mason III, making it perfectly clear in the Kansas rout of Purdue -- 26 points, 9-for-11 shooting, seven rebounds, seven assists – who the top player on the court was. And it certainly wasn’t Caleb Swanigan.
Finally, Xavier’s Malcolm Bernard, a graduate transfer from Florida A&M with a 6.8 scoring average, who turned into a scoring machine with 15 points after halftime, hitting five of six shots, as the 11th-seed Musketeers knocked off Arizona 73-71. “I just didn’t think it was time for our season to end,” he said afterward.
So went a rollicking Thursday in the Sweet 16, a night that was three-fourths scintillating – three games settled by a combined six points -- and one-fourth shellacking.
When it was over, the operative phrase was . . . maybe it’s time.
Maybe it’s Gonzaga’s time.
Any last remaining questions about the Zags’ resilience, their purpose and their resolve -- if there possibly could have been -- should have vanished after they survived a brutal test of wills with West Virginia.
Until Mathews saved the day it had the ambience of Rocky Balboa going against Apollo Creed. The Zags weathered a trial by fire where they were outscored 24-12 in points off turnovers, 19-6 in second chance points, 19-6 in bench points, and missed 11 free throws. “That was just an absolute war, rock fight, however you want to describe it,” said Few, who called the Mountaineers the toughest and most physical opponent his team has faced in a long time. “I’m talking years. But you know what, the Zags are tough and physical, too.”
One thing can be questioned of the Zags. Where’s the shooting gone? The team with the second best field goal percentage in the nation during the season has put up these numbers in its three NCAA Tournament games: 39.7, 44.1 and 40.9. Nobody gets away with that forever.
But it hasn’t stopped them yet, putting Few only 40 minutes away from getting the proverbial Final Four monkey off his back. “First of all, I don’t know that I have a monkey on my back,” he said. “I certainly don’t wake up with one or walk around with one. So I don’t think these guys think I have one.
"It’s not about me and my monkeys and my dogs and my cats. It’s about them,”
Maybe it’s Xavier’s time.
Strange forces seem at work with the Musketeers, who could be the first 11th-seed since VCU in 2011 to barge into the Final Four. They have been nibbling at the edges for years, but who would have thought it now, a team with 13 defeats that dropped six in a row in an injury-riddled February?
“I think our guys earned a lot today,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “But they had already earned that in my book, the way we battled back in the six-game losing streak a long time ago.”
Junior J.P. Macura seconded the motion. “We’re all tough guys. We stuck together, and we’ve been playing tough together, and we’re not really backing down from anybody. And if you have that mentality, you can beat a lot of teams,”
To beat Arizona, the Musketeers were helped by the Wildcats missing their last five shots, including a 3-pointer by freshman star Allonzo Trier with eight seconds left.
Maybe it’s Oregon’s time.
The Ducks won the first national championship 78 long years ago. They haven’t been back to the Final Four since. They won a game with 16 lead changes Thursday, when Michigan’s glorious ride ended on Derrick Walton Jr’s too-short shot at the buzzer.
And now veteran coach Dana Altman is at the Final Four door.
“I’m getting old and you don’t know how many years you have left,” he said. “And you have to be lucky. That shot could have went in.”
Maybe it’s Mason’s time.
Certainly Kansas has been to the Final Four as recently as 2012, so it’s not like Bill Self has been waiting long. But this is Mason’s last chance. And Self has had other No. 1 seeds that were gone too soon, so he can always use another trip.
And the Jayhawks will not want for support as they try for it Saturday. Not a lot neutral about the court in Kansas City.
“Look out there, and there is a little green section and dark blue section, and royal blue filled everything else,” Oregon’s Altman said of the Kansas crowd Thursday night. “It’s a road game.”
Karma seems at work for all Thursday’s four survivors, since things could have been different. Gonzaga’s three players who had to put in lots of minutes with four fouls – including Mathews – could have fouled out. Walton could have made his shot, especially since the Ducks, who had fouls to give, were supposed to foul him. but didn’t. Trier could have made his. Kansas could be playing this regional in Ohio or somewhere.
But none of the above happened. After Thursday, maybe it’s time. But for only two of them.