Sweet 16 preview: Gonzaga can’t afford to make mistakes vs Florida State

Mar 21, 2018, 3:45 PM
Gonzaga outlasted Ohio State last weekend to earn a trip to its fourth straight Sweet 16. (AP)...
Gonzaga outlasted Ohio State last weekend to earn a trip to its fourth straight Sweet 16. (AP)

If Gonzaga is going to make it to a second consecutive Elite Eight, it will need to protect the basketball against its surprise Sweet 16 opponent.

The Zags, seeded fourth in the West Region, will take on No. 9 Florida State on Thursday in Los Angeles after the Seminoles shocked No. 1 Xavier on Sunday.

‘Snacks’ Norvell fires up low-key Gonzaga’s latest Sweet 16 run

“I tell you, the reason that we’re not moving on was turnovers on our part caused by a tremendous amount of pressure from Florida State,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said.

Xavier’s two best players, seniors Trevon Blueitt and J.P Macura, combined to commit half of the Musketeers’ 18 turnovers, and Florida State (22-11) closed the game with an 18-4 run to win 75-70.

The Seminoles are big and deep — 11 different players saw action in the first eight minutes Sunday — and are tied for 17th in the nation with 5.2 blocks per game. Their two centers, 7-footer Ike Obiagu and 7-4 Christ Koumadje, have combined for 101 blocks.

“Xavier brought the fight and we did, too,” said senior forward Phil Cofer, who leads a balanced offense at 12.9 points per game. “We’ve been in that position before, been down more actually. That’s one of the things with us; we’re going to fight until the last minute no matter what.”

After finishing the ACC regular season 9-9, the Seminoles have seen their share of scraps.

Florida State was 3-0 in overtime games against eventual NCAA Tournament teams and rallied to beat Clemson — still alive in the Midwest Region — after trailing by 18.

“We’ve stayed connected,” coach Leonard Hamilton said. “We have a great relationship with our players. We have our ups and downs and everything is not always perfect, but I’m so proud of these guys. They allow us to challenge them and to coach them.”

Like Gonzaga, the Seminoles are balanced offensively: Nine players average between 6.6 and 12.9 points.

The Zags’ march to a fourth straight Sweet 16 appearance might not have followed script, but they made plays in crunch time.

After being off for nine days, Gonzaga (32-4) looked rusty in the first round, needing a clutch 3-pointer from Zach Norvell Jr. to finally put away pesky UNC Greensboro 68-64.

The rust seemed to have worn off by Saturday when the Bulldogs raced to a 15-0 lead in their second-round matchup with Ohio State.

But unlike a November meeting when Gonzaga rolled to a 27-point win, Ohio State made a second-half charge.

The Buckeyes led 67-62 after Keita Bates-Diop’s 3-pointer with 6:02 to go.

Cue Norvell.

The redshirt freshman, known by his teammates as Snacks, hit from deep and grabbed a rebound that led to a three-point play by Killian Tillie as Gonzaga regained the lead for good.

A few minutes later, Norvell, who finished with 28 points and made 6 of 11 shots from long range, scored five straight points to put the Zags up 78-69 with 1:52 left.

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“He’s just a fiery guy with some swag from Chicago, and we need that,” coach Mark Few said. “You add in the fact that he’s right there with probably the most clutch players I’ve coached, going back to Dan Dickau or Adam Morrison. The shot before the 3 (in Gonzaga’s late run against Ohio State) missed by 8 feet, and to come back and swish the next one … that’s like me shanking two into the water and then hitting a hole-in-one, which doesn’t happen.”

Norvell also corralled a career-best 12 rebounds.

“He goes a month sometimes without getting a rebound,” Few joked.

To counter the Seminoles’ imposing front line, the Bulldogs will have to avoid the foul problems that plagued them against Ohio State.

Tillie, a 6-10 sophomore, 6-foot-9 senior Johnathan Williams and Norvell each had four fouls. Point guard Josh Perkins fouled out in the closing seconds.

But, as they have during a nation-leading 16-game winning streak, the Zags made the plays they had to.

“We’re just getting more and more comfortable when adversity hits,” Perkins said. “Especially in March, adversity is going to hit. For us to respond two times in a row, the WCC got us prepared for it.”

– The Sports Xchange

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Sweet 16 preview: Gonzaga can’t afford to make mistakes vs Florida State