And then there were two.
Gonzaga. North Carolina. One game left for the title.
National championship game on Monday, April 3
Zags keep the party rolling
Even with Polish Pirate Przemek Karnowski playing with one eye, Gonzaga clawed its way to a 14-point lead with 10:55 left in Saturday's first semifinal game. It was over. South Carolina was going to get run out of the gym.
But it didn't happen. The Gamecocks rallied for 16 unanswered points, snatched every ounce of momentum in the game and captured the lead. As quickly as they did, though, the whole thing slipped through their fingers. The Bulldogs muscled their way back on top when 7-footer Zach Collins drained a three with 6:45 left, finished strong at the free-throw line and earned their first trip to the natonal title game with a 77-73 win.
Big surprise, the Bulldogs’ two 7-foot towers played a crucial role.
There was Collins, the freshman difference-maker who, in front of 70,000-plus fans, scored 14 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and blocked six South Carolina shots – in just 23 minutes.
And of course, there was Karnowski. But more impressive, there was his father, Bonifacy, who traveled 6,000 miles to see his son take Gonzaga to its biggest stage ever.
As for the Bulldogs next opponent, well ...
UNC has found its magic number
Twice in the past two games, UNC’s season has hung in the balance in the game’s final seconds. Twice, the Heels scored 77. Twice, they advanced.
Not once was anything close to guaranteed.
Last week, it was Luke Maye with the game-winning shot to down Kentucky. Saturday, in the second semifinal game at the Final Four, it wasn’t a made shot at all, but four missed ones.
Up 77-76, with five seconds left, Kennedy Meeks — who finished with a game-high 25 points and 14 rebounds — came up short on two free throws, and Oregon could've had a chance to win.
But wait, there’s Theo Pinson, who tipped the rebound back out to Joel Berry.
Oregon was forced to foul. So, with four seconds left, Berry — playing on two bum ankles and one giant heart — went to the free-throw line and missed both of his attempts, giving Oregon a chance to win.
But wait, there’s Meeks to snatch the offensive board — the Tar Heels’ 17th of the game — and toss it back out to Pinson.
There’s the buzzer. There’s North Carolina, back in the national championship.
In other news
• Kansas' Bill Self was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame. Here's Self reflecting on playing, coaching and Kansas.
• Go behind the scenes with all-access photos from Phoenix.
• Karnowski isn't the only International player reuniting with his parents on the sport's biggest stage. In fact, he's just one of 15 players on the four teams that made it to Phoenix who were born outside the United States