PORTLAND, Oregon – In the madness of the NCAA Tournament, there is no extra credit for style points. It is all about survive and advance. Accounting for the will to win, teams have to figure out how to get the job done and execute.
Against Gongaza, the No. 1-ranked team in the field, Memphis came up four points (82-78) short, ending the Tigers’ quest to move beyond the second round and on to the Sweet 16.
Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway, whose college and pro resume fully qualifies him to make this assessment, put the clash between the Tigers (seeded ninth) and the Bulldogs this way: “What a great game, man!”
Even a casual observer likely would have concluded the same.
The Tigers, up by 10 at halftime, went into the break “confident because we have to be,” said Hardaway. “We understand that we were the underdog and we were going to have to fight these guys. …”
Memphis willed its margin to 12 and then the Drew-Timme factor exploded in full effect. Gonzaga’s star forward, who had four points in the first half, finished with 25 points, 14 rebounds, 4 assists.
“He made some tough shots, controlled the game, got our guys in foul trouble and the rest is history,” Hardaway said. “Feel like he got every offensive rebound or every foul or every bucket for them. …
“We witnessed that from the TV a bunch, just watching him be so dominant … he made some fantastic shots. I mean, great defense. And he still made them. That’s why he is who he is. Overall, I’m proud of my guys for fighting to get us to this point and I hope we made our school and our city proud.”
Having earned the right to take on Gonzaga with its 64-53 opening-round win over the Boise State Broncos, Memphis as a basketball program never had defeated a tournament team ranked No.1.
“What a heck of a ball game, man,” said Gonzaga head coach Mark Few. “Both teams just competing their tails off and it’s probably as physical of a game as we have been in all year.”
How did Gonzaga overcome the Tigers?
“(W)e had to dig very, very deep,” said Few. “The way we came out fighting in the second half I thought was more who we are. And then we just did a great job down the stretch, executing all our late-game stuff to get it done.”
It was blow-for-blow in the first 14 minutes. Memphis edged ahead (23-22) on a Malcolm Dandridge dunk with 5:56 left in the first half. With 4:25 left in the half, a technical foul was called on the Gonzaga bench after a foul on Memphis guard Tyler Harris. Memphis led 31-26 after Harris connected from the free-throw line.
The Tigers, an 11.5-point underdog by most sportsbooks, climbed to an 11-point advantage with 42 seconds left in the half and took a 41-31 lead into the break despite foul concerns about freshman-phenom center Jalen Duren (7 points, 7 rebounds, 1 block), who ended up playing only 19 minutes
After the break, the game became a poster for a tale of two halves. Gonzaga spurted to an 11-4 run (45-42) and got the crowd, which heavily favored the Bulldogs, back into the game with 15:34 left to play. Timme scored the first 11 points.
Gonzaga shot 15 free throws in the second half compared to only six by the Tigers. And while the Bulldogs were shaky at the free throw for much of the game, they came up clutch down the stretch, aided by the hot hand of guard Andrew Nembhard (23 points, 5 assists).
Against a good defensive Memphis team, Gonzaga was able to shoot 52 percent from the floor.
The Bulldogs’ relentless pursuit of the lead propelled them to a 51-51 tie with 12:52 left on a basket by their freshman-sensation center Chet Holmgren (9 points, 9 rebounds, 4 blocks). They captured their first lead of the second half with 10:14 left when Timme manufactured a second-chance basket.
Down by seven points (76-69) with 2:17 remaining, the Tigers’ Lester Quinones made a three-pointer with 33 seconds to go, cutting the deficit to 2 points (78-76). Nembhard’s four free throws in the waning moments sealed the victory for Gonzaga, which reached the Sweet 16 for the seventh straight year.
And while a Sweet 16 matchup between the Tigers and Arkansas would have kindled thoughts of titanic battles of the past, it’s Gonzaga’s Bulldogs who advanced to face the Razorbacks in San Francisco next week.