SALT LAKE CITY – Number one came oh-so-close to being one and done at the NCAA basketball tournament.
The “Miracle on Ice” almost had to make room in America’s sporting heart for “The Miracle on Wood” when the Southern Jaguars threatened to pull off the biggest upset in college basketball history Thursday afternoon against Gonzaga.
The fact that a No. 16 seed very nearly beat a No. 1 seed for the first time in the tourney’s history only begins to capture the essence of a contest that alternately brought fans to their feet or left them hushed in wonderment.
Tiny Southern University, forever hidden in the shadow of giant Louisiana State – almost literally, since both schools call Baton Rouge home – won over thousands of fans in EnergySolutions Arena. The Jaguars only wish they could do the same back home, since a typical home crowd numbered less than 1,800 this season.
A pro-Gonzaga crowd gradually transformed itself into a screaming, fist-pumping, semi-delirious Southern crowd when the Jaguars – 22-point underdogs – simply refused to go away.
Perhaps the only thing more stunning than the Jaguars’ ability to trade baskets with the top-ranked team in the country was their ability to win over the crowd. After all, Southern’s team bus had to drive down John Stockton Drive and go past Stockton’s statue outside the arena before staring at Stockton’s retired Utah Jazz jersey hanging from the rafters inside the arena.
Stockton, you may have heard, was Gonzaga’s greatest baller. Salt Lake City fans will always love Stockton, but on one special day, they fell in love with the Jaguars in a 64-58 loss that eyewitnesses will not soon forget.
“Everyone was so moved by their effort and their resilience and their confidence,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “If I wasn’t coaching on the other sideline, they would be a tough team not to root for.”
America loves an underdog, as Gonzaga well knows. The Bulldogs long ago traded their underdog status for favored status during a constant run of Top 25 rankings and NCAA tournament appearances.
And yet, for 40 minutes of basketball on one memorable day in a city that loves its roundball, the Jaguars (23-10) were virtual equals with Gonzaga (32-2).
Not in size, or skill or pedigree. The Jaguars did, however, match the Bulldogs in heart and sweat and the willingness to chase a dream and not let go until there was no choice.
“Coming into the game,” Southern point guard Jameel Grace said, “we thought we were going to make history.”
The Jaguars might very well have done so if not for the best Canadian imports this side of Kokanee beer.
Kelly Olynyk, limited to four points in the opening half, scored 17 of Gonzaga’s 20 points in the first 14 minutes of the second half.
“He played like an All-American – which he is,” Bulldogs guard Gary Bell Jr. said.
Sweet-shooting Derick Beltran heated up from outside at crunch time for Southern and forged a tie at 56. However, Pangos offset Beltran’s late-game heroics with two killer jumpers – the last a trey for a 62-58 lead with less than 2 minutes left.
“We needed it down the stretch,” Bell said, “and he gave it to us.”
The Jaguars, in turn, almost gave Gonzaga fans a collective heart attack. Bell insisted that he “was not worried at all,” and Olynyk declared “any win in the tournament is a good win,” but Gonzaga doubters would have never forgiven the Bulldogs if they lost to a rebuilding team two years removed from a 4-26 season.
“The more I watched them on film,” Few said, “the more I was like, ‘These guys are going to be a handful.’ They defend every possession, kind of direct your shots. They have size and athleticism around the rim.”
The Jaguars played quite physically against Gonzaga, and that’s the style of play favored by Wichita State (27-8), the Bulldogs’ Saturday opponent in Salt Lake City. The unranked Shockers, seeded ninth in the West Region, easily dispatched eighth-seeded Pittsburgh, 73-55, in Thursday’s early game.
The Bulldogs said they were focused solely on Southern – “We didn’t spend one moment on either Wichita State or Pitt,” Few said – so Gonzaga can’t be accused of looking past the Jaguars. Nor did the Bulldogs use a 10-day layoff as an excuse for a shockingly close game.
“Nothing is going to be easy,” Few said.
Yeah, the Jaguars say. Tell us about it.
“No one likes a loser,” Grace said. “Unfortunately, that’s what we were today.”
Only on the scoreboard, young man. Only on the scoreboard.