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Joe Boozell | | April 1, 2017

Freshman Collins a difference-maker as Gonzaga tops South Carolina

Final Four: Gonzaga defeats South Carolina

A popular narrative in the days leading up to the Final Four: Experience, grit and continuity win games in the NCAA tournament.

True. Also true: Never underestimate the value of sheer talent. No matter its age.

Gonzaga veterans Przemek Karnowski and Nigel Williams-Goss excelled in the Bulldogs' 77-73 semifinal win Saturday over South Carolina in the Final Four, pushing Gonzaga into Monday night's national title game against North Carolina. Freshmen are often unpredictable in intense settings like Saturday's. With 70,000-plus raucous fans zeroed in on a basketball court in the middle of a huge stadium, even the most skilled prospects can get rattled.  

So what Zach Collins did against the Gamecocks at University of Phoenix Stadium was extra special. The rookie forward scored 14 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and blocked six South Carolina shots – in just 23 minutes.

“He [Collins] told me before the game, he said, ‘Look, I wouldn't want to be playing against me today,’” Williams-Goss shared after the game.

Collins was recruited by Gonzaga to be an immediate starter, but because of Karnowski’s medical redshirt, Collins ended up a reserve this season. Yet in only limited time off the bench, the 7-footer has been brilliant. Collins averages only 17.2 minutes a game, but his per-40 numbers are astounding: 23.1 points and 13.1 rebounds. Both marks lead the team.

It's a testament to both Collins and the Gonzaga program. Going into this season, everyone knew Gonzaga was talented. But it was fair to wonder how, and how quickly, the parts would mesh. After all, Josh Perkins and Silas Melson are the only rotation players who logged significant minutes on last season’s team. 

In Mark Few’s mind, instant buy-in made all the difference.

“I think it's been kind of under-talked about, how they came together,” Few, Gonzaga's coach, said. “They haven't fought anything. And it's absolutely been amazing, the sacrifices they've made. They gave up shots, minutes, roles ... just like Zach Collins.”

In basketball circles, analytics versus chemistry is a constant argument. Statistical wonks often don’t give enough credence to the game’s human element. And old-schoolers often are unwilling to embrace innovative ways to explain what we’re watching. The truth is, both matter deeply. A talented team whose players hate each other probably won’t make a deep NCAA tournament run. A team whose players love each other but lack skill won’t, either. 

Blending chemistry and ability is crucial, and Collins showed on Saturday he has both ability and the ability to fit in. Remember, some tension between Collins and Karnowski would have been almost expected.

Yet the big brother-little brother relationship between the two is apparent. Wise cracks and all.

“I'm really happy for him," Karnowski said of Collins. “His work ethic is awesome. He's been playing well for us the entire season. Whenever I go to the bench and he gets in, our team doesn't drop a bit. So he's been huge for us.

“And with six blocks ... you know, my career high is seven. But six is still good.”

MORE: Karnowski's father travels from Poland to watch his son play

As good as Collins and Gonzaga were Saturday, give South Carolina credit: The Gamecocks were relentless. This stat from the second half is jaw-dropping:

South Carolina charged back from 14 points down in the second half with a 16-0 run to give Gonzaga a scare. But in the end, Gonzaga was too cohesive, too big, too athletic and too skilled. By himself, Collins was too big, athletic and skilled.

A little good fortune doesn’t hurt either. Collins had eight 3-pointers before Saturday's game. His ninth was by far his most important. And his luckiest. It ended that monster South Carolina run.

“Right when I flashed up to the high post I knew I was going to shoot it,” Collins said. “I think Przemek was open in the low post. I probably should have passed it but, luckily, it went in.”

That’s Collins for you. Wise enough to know better. Too skilled for it to matter.

Friendly reminder to those who doubt Gonzaga: Collins ranks seventh on the team in minutes. Luck is always welcome. But on most nights, it's not necessary for these Bulldogs.

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