SALT LAKE CITY — In terms of making a statement that they're a powerhouse ready to take on the world, prove their validity as a No. 1 seed and about to breeze through the West Region, the Gonzaga Bulldogs were a massive disappointment on Thursday afternoon.
But in terms of playing a highly entertaining basketball game against a supposedly overmatched No. 16 seed — a contest that gave fans their money worth and had them cheering for both sides — Gonzaga did not leave a single person at EnergySolutions Arena dissatisfied. If the Zags are a deserving top seed or if they'll make a deep tournament run — those were the last things on the minds of spectators during two worthwhile hours of college basketball.
March Madness? Oh, heck yes.
Gonzaga escaped past the second round of the NCAA tournament, thanks to a spectacular second-half performance from 7-foot Canadian center Kelly Olynyk and clutch shooting by guard Kevin Pangos with a 64-58 victory over Southern. Olynyk scored 17 of his team-high 21 points in the second half and had 10 rebounds to lift the Zags to a third-round matchup against Wichita State on Saturday.
"Any win in the tournament is a good win," Olynyk said. "So we have to kinda take that into consideration and then move forward. We can improve. Hopefully we got the cobwebs off from the conference tournament and we will continue to get better."
The Zags (32-2), who had 10 days between their West Coast Conference championship victory over Saint Mary's and their win over Southern (23-10) on Thursday, will soon be enjoying a spring vacation if they aren't better in the next rounds of the tournament.
Gonzaga was on the brink of a historic upset defeat — no No. 1 seed has ever lost to a No. 16 seed in the NCAA tournament — until Pangos delivered the biggest shot of the game. He buried a step-back 3-pointer with 1:54 remaining to put the Zags up 62-58. The basket gave Gonzaga its largest lead in nearly four minutes, and the Jaguars were unable to respond.
"Kevin is just a clutch player," said Bulldogs coach Mark Few. "You're sitting there as a coach (and) you have no problem with whatever decision or shot that he takes or the results of those shots because that kid is in the gym 365 days a year."
On Southern's next possession, Malcolm Miller missed a 3-pointer. The Jaguars had another possession to close the four-point gap, but Miller missed another jumper with 23 seconds remaining. Olynyk collected a loose-ball rebound, and Pangos sank two more free throws to ice the game for the Bulldogs.
Pangos finished with 16 points. Gary Bell Jr. chipped in 11 points and drilled a 3-pointer to break a 56-56 tie with 3:46 remaining.
Southern only fell behind by double digits once. That came after an 11-1 Gonzaga run that put the Bulldogs up 52-41. But the Jaguars wouldn't stop fighting, and they rallied back with an even more impressive 13-2 spurt to tie it. Derick Beltran scored seven of his team-high 21 points during the run, and Brandon Moore tied the game at 54-54 with two free throws.
Southern's resiliency turned the crowd in its favor. The game had a home-crowd feeling for Gonzaga in the first half, but the casual and non-diehard Zags fans cheered boisterously for the Jaguars in the second half.
"It was a surprise to me, here in Salt Lake," Few said of fans jumping on Southern's bandwagon. "I think everybody was so moved by their effort and resilience and their confidence. If I wasn't coaching on the other sideline, they would be a tough team not to root for, you know?"
Southern, a small school from Baton Rouge, La., appreciated the support. But the Jaguars weren't satisfied with coming close, putting a scare into a No. 1 seed or surprising folks outside of their program with their gritty effort. They came to Salt Lake to win, and didn't accomplish their goal.
"Unfortunately, we just came up short today," said Southern point guard Jameel Grace. "It doesn't feel good at all. No one likes to lose. Unfortunately that's where we are today."
A big problem — literally — for Southern in the second half was guarding the 7-foot Olynyk. He shot 6-for-8 after halftime and pick-and-rolled the Jaguars to death along with guards Pangos and David Stockton. That, of course, was fitting considering a Stockton was playing inside EnergySolutions Arena.
"He is obviously the best big man we have played," said Southern coach Roman Banks. "He has a lot of versatility. He can play 15 feet away from the basket. He can put the ball down, get by you and score the basketball. I think he's one of the top three college basketball players today. We knew that he would be a handful."
Southern was just as big of a handful in its own right. And that helped make for two scintillating hours of March Madness.
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