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Little Southern comfort for No. 1 Gonzaga

Bulldogs get a scare against the SWAC champions, but they avoid a historic upset when sophomore guards hit two big late shots in 64-58 victory.

March 21, 2013|Chris Dufresne
  • Kelly Olynyk lead the Bulldogs past the Jaguars with 21 points, 10 rebounds and one steal in Gonzaga's narrow 64-58 victory over Southern.
Kelly Olynyk lead the Bulldogs past the Jaguars with 21 points, 10 rebounds… (Harry How / Getty Images )

SALT LAKE CITY — What a sight it was seeing Gonzaga star center Kelly Olynyk consoling a distraught opponent who fell just short of pulling off one of the great upsets in NCAA tournament history.

Southern guard Derick Beltran was bent over at half court at EnergySolutions Arena when Olynyk passed by to give him a great-effort pat.

Gonzaga needed every lifeboat dropped Thursday to survive upstart Southern, 64-58, and avoid becoming the first top-seeded team to lose to a No. 16.

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No. 1's record against 16 going into this tournament was 112-0.

Only a few years ago, Gonzaga was the underdog trying to take down one of the tournament giants. Everything has changed.

When Southern charged back from an 11-point deficit to tie the score, 56-56, on Beltran's three-pointer with 3 minutes 46 seconds left, most of the crowd of 12,621 had already filed adoption papers for the Jaguars and penciled mustaches on the dastardly Bulldogs.

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"If I wasn't coaching on the other sideline, they would be a tough team not to root for, you know?" Gonzaga Coach Mark Few said.

As darlings, the Jags had replaced the Zags.

Gonzaga entered the game as the No. 1 team in the nation and the top-seeded team in the West Regional. Southern was No. 1 in the Southwestern Athletic Conference after splitting a regular-season series against Alcorn State.

Beltran, a 6-4 senior guard from Riverview, Fla., did everything he could to pull off a stunning victory. He led his team in heart and with 21 points.

"They definitely weren't scared to jump up and meet you at the rim," Gonzaga's Olynyk said. "They're a very athletic team and we kind of just had to fight through that."

The Jaguars also stayed in contention by making 10 of 23 three-point attempts.

In the end, though, losing was losing.

"It's not a good feeling,"' Beltran offered with his head bowed, "because we worked so hard all year long. It just doesn't feel good."

Thursday's game ranks among the closest calls a top-seeded school has faced in its first game.

In the 1989 tournament, East Tennessee State and Princeton came within a point of upsetting Oklahoma and Georgetown.

A year later, No. 16 Murray State took Michigan State to overtime before losing by four, and No. 16 Western Carolina lost to No. 1 Purdue by two.

Gonzaga needed a great second half from Olynyk, who scored 17 of his 21 points after intermission. The Bulldogs also needed two huge three-pointers from their sophomore guards to avoid making the wrong kind of history.

With 3:18 left, Gary Bell Jr. broke the 56-56 tie Beltran had just created, but Spokane had no time to stop chewing its fingernails. Bell then fouled Beltran, who made two free throws to cut the lead to one.

Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga's other sophomore guard, finally gave his team some cushion when his three-pointer with 1:53 left pushed the lead to four.

Southern guard Malcolm Miller had two good looks from three-point range inside the last 1:20, but both shots rattled out.

Gonzaga could finally rest when Pangos added two free throws with 14 seconds left.

The more pressing concern for Gonzaga is how it handled the spotlight. If Thursday's game was not the result of nervous jitters, the Bulldogs are in serious trouble Saturday against Wichita State.

The Shockers are an athletic team that dismantled Pittsburgh, 75-53. Wichita State, champion of the Missouri Valley Conference, is much better than Southern.

"This group thinks it can beat anybody in the country," Wichita State Coach Gregg Marshall said after his team's win over Pitt.

And that includes No.1 in the country.

Teams have survived first-round games and still made deep runs.

In 2000, No. 5 Florida needed overtime to beat some fledgling school named Butler and then proceeded all the way to the title game.

It was 30 years ago that North Carolina State Coach Jim Valvano popularized the phrase "survive and advance" during his team's unlikely ride to the NCAA championship.

Gonzaga survived but also advanced.

"Any win in the tournament is a good win," Olynyk said. "So we have to kind of take that into consideration."

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