History in the Making

How the Zags got to their first Final Four, and who stands in the way of a national championship

Given the team's long history of regular-season and NCAA Tournament success, it shouldn't be a surprise that Gonzaga finally reached the Final Four mountaintop. But as the final seconds ticked off in their West Regional final on Saturday and the reality set in that the Zags would be playing in Phoenix this weekend with a shot at the national championship, it was still a goosebumps moment for Spokane college hoops fans.

Finally, after years of oh-so-close, the Zags are in the final stage of March Madness, and no matter what happens in Arizona, the 2016-17 team will go down in Gonzaga history as the school's best team ever — at least until the next Final Four run.

Here's a look at the steps the team took during this March Madness run, and a scouting report on their national semifinal foe, South Carolina.

March 16: GU beats South Dakota State 66-46

The pesky Jackrabbits hung tough until the second half, evoking Gonzaga's previous trip to Salt Lake City for the tournament's early rounds when they barely beat 16th-seeded Southern. Johnathan Williams held SDSU star Mike Daum in check defensively, foreshadowing a strong run of performances that ultimately resulted in Williams being named the West Regional's Most Outstanding Player. Fellow transfer Jordan Mathews led a balanced Zags attack with 16 points.

March 18: GU beats Northwestern 79-73

The Wildcats made some school history themselves, becoming the first Northwestern team to reach the NCAA Tournament. They nearly made their run even more significant, delivering a furious comeback against the Zags in the second half after being down 18 points at the break. Northwestern got the lead down to five with five minutes to play when the Zags' Zach Collins got away with a goaltending call when he reached up through the hoop to block a shot. Wildcats coach Chris Collins was hit with a technical foul for arguing about the play, and the comeback momentum was effectively thwarted. The Zags breathed a sigh of relief and headed to the Sweet Sixteen. Nigel Williams-Goss led the way with 20 points and eight rebounds.

March 23: GU beats West Virginia 61-58

The Mountaineers' infamous pressing defense definitely affected Gonzaga's offense, but the Zags' defense proved even tougher on West Virginia, holding the Mountaineers to 26.7 percent shooting from the field in an ugly, foul-filled game that went right down to the wire. Mathews' three-point shooting proved key for Gonzaga, especially his last shot that came with just under a minute to play and put the Zags up for good. There were a total of 51 fouls called, and only 34 field goals scored between the teams; the old March Madness axiom of "survive and advance" was never more apt for the Zags.

March 25: GU beats Xavier 83-59

After their team had scuffled through parts of their previous three games, Gonzaga fans enjoyed a performance like the ones they're used to when the Zags play West Coast Conference foes. On offense, the team hit 12 of 24 three-point attempts and methodically picked apart the Musketeers' defense behind Williams-Goss' playmaking, center Przemek Karnowski's passing and Williams' sheer athleticism. Williams-Goss scored 23 points, Williams 19, but it was truly a team effort, as the Zags led by 10 points at halftime before pulling away to become the first WCC team in the Final Four since the University of San Francisco in 1957 — and the first Gonzaga Final Four team ever.

On Saturday at 3:09 pm, CBS: Gonzaga vs. South Carolina

Any Zags fans feeling overconfident because South Carolina entered the tournament as a No. 7 seed need to check themselves. The Gamecocks are a well-coached team, and after already making their deepest-ever March Madness run, they're full of confidence. More important, South Carolina brings a tough-as-nails defense to every game. The Zags' game against West Virginia should serve them well, as they prepare for another team that doesn't have the size Gonzaga does, but boasts a deep roster that delivers what the media loves to call "swarming" D. Gonzaga will have to keep East Regional Most Outstanding Player Sindarius Thornwell in check; the sharpshooting senior guard averages 21.6 points a game and has been the key to the Gamecocks' tournament wins against Marquette, No. 2 seed Duke, No. 3 seed Baylor and No. 4 seed Florida, boosting that production to 25.5 points per game. ♦

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About The Author

Dan Nailen

Dan Nailen is the managing editor of the Inlander, where he oversees coverage of arts and culture. He's previously written and edited for The Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake City Weekly, Missoula Independent, Salt Lake Magazine, The Oregonian and KUER-FM. He grew up seeing the country in an Air Force family and studied...