It’s been a year of distractions and challenges. A preseason No. 1 ranking brought pressure and a pandemic necessitated isolation. The Zags stayed focused and overcame the obstacles all season long.
Gonzaga versus USC in the Elite Eight on Tuesday night was the season in miniature.
Joel Ayayi took a forearm to the mouth in the opening minutes and then laid on the hardwood counting his teeth — they were all there, but he had to come out of the game nonetheless. Moments later, right in front of Gonzaga’s bench, referee Bert Smith fell to the ground, seemingly unconscious. Smith would be wheeled off the court on a stretcher soon after — by halftime word came from the NCAA that he was stable, alert and wouldn’t require hospitalization.
A player took a shot to the mouth and an official looked like he might have died on the court. After an efficient start to the game, the Zags were faced with a stoppage that was completely unexpected. They had to focus on their game, of course, but now they had to deal with an incapacitated referee, something that never comes up in practice.
“I was just shocked and scared for him,” Head Coach Mark Few said after the game, “I was able to stick my head in there a little bit and see that he was talking and coherent and tried to say a quick prayer for him.”
Thankfully, it appears that Smith is doing fine. Players and coaches are accustomed to dealing with injuries to players. But an official? A ref? Especially in a terrifying out of nowhere moment like that which happened with Smith? Nobody plans for that. You can’t plan for that.
Once it was clear he was stable and fine, and a replacement referee could take his place, the game moved on. It was a jarring moment from which both teams were forced to quickly forget. Both did, but the Zags did better.
By halftime the Zags held a massive lead. USC had committed seven turnovers to Gonzaga’s one. It was the Elite Eight, and Gonzaga should have been tested, but as they had done throughout the season, the Zags rolled.
In the second half USC never managed to pull close. Gonzaga, for the 29th time over 30 games this season, won by more than 10 points.
They’ve faced challenges from tough teams. Be it Iowa, Kansas or Virginia in the regular season or BYU or archrival Saint Mary’s, the Zags absorbed every blow their opposition could summon. The Trojans never held a lead on Tuesday. Honestly, they never even threatened the Zags. It was a blowout from tip to horn. As has been the case all season long, no matter who they played or what the circumstance, the Zags dominated. And on Tuesday, they won by 19 points to advance to the Final Four.
Whether it was the stress of that preseason No. 1 ranking in the AP Poll, or the continually building pressure of their undefeated record, the Zags have not yet snapped. They’re still building to their ultimate goal of finally winning a national championship.
They’ve looked calm and stress-free through the first four games in the NCAA Tournament, and now just two remain. Next up is UCLA, an 11 seed, a team that shouldn’t have made it past the first round. Here are the Bruins, three rounds farther than they should be, a Cinderella against the aggressive behemoth of Gonzaga.
Maybe the best way to look at this is through Few’s lens.
“This is something that needs to be celebrated and we need to take the time to enjoy the heck out of it,” Few says of his team’s performance. “I think you're just missing the point in life if all you’re just going to the very end game and that’s the only way you’re going to celebrate and feel good about anything.”
For the Zags, two wins remain between where they are now and immortality. They won’t admit that, nor will they deny it. But the fact remains that this team has spent all season doing what is almost impossible. They’ve navigated a perfect year to date, in the most absurdly difficult of times, and have had fun doing so. They’re now two wins away from locking up the title of best team in college basketball history.
They’ll probably do it, too. Even if they don’t, they’ve had as much fun as anyone to come before.
Top-seeded Gonzaga will face a Cinderella story in 11-seed UCLA on Saturday at 5:34 p.m. on CBS in the Final Four. Winner will play for the national championship against either Houston or Baylor on Monday.