In its first-round loss to No. 4 seed Gonzaga, 13-seed UNC Greensboro did what they do best for 39.5 minutes, nearly knocking off the reigning national runner-ups in the process.
The Spartans entered the tournament 27-7, winners of the regular season and conference tournament Southern Conference crowns and nearly a month removed from their last loss. While the offense is powered by junior guard Francis Alonso, a Spainard with a knack for making game-altering shots, UNCG is a defensive team first and foremost. In Gonzaga, they faced a challenge of matching strength against strength—coached by former UNC player Wes Miller, the Spartans held teams to an average 62.4 points this season, good for sixth in the nation; Mark Few’s Gonzaga offense entered Boise ranked ninth in the nation at 84.5 points per game.
This kind of thing happens all the time in the tournament—a team with little postseason experience and impressive statistics accrued in a small conference gets washed by a more established program, simply by way of talent and size. Thursday afternoon, though, the Greensboro zone passed the stress test; had its offense showed up in the first half, we’d be talking about an upset right now.
The Spartans managed to hang around with the Zags all afternoon thanks mostly to an impressive 1-2-2 press zone. Gonzaga, one of the best shooting teams in the country, was able to break through a few times easy interior buckets, but mostly the Bulldogs settled for contested three-pointers, never developing a rhythm that forced UNCG to abandon its zone. The Bulldogs didn’t exactly come in as an elite three-point shooting team at 37.4 percent; against UNCG, that dipped all the way to 21.7 percent.
So, even as Gonzaga climbed to a nine-point halftime lead while the Spartans offense sputtered, the Bulldogs still only managed 32 points. Come the second half, once Alonso and Demetrius Troy started to heat up and land NBA-level floaters over Gonzaga’s big men in the lane, the lead dwindled. It finally disappeared on a Troy jumper with 4:20 left that tied the game at 60.
The final four minutes didn’t feature a ton of scoring, but the fireworks were there nonetheless, as a nifty, soft-handed putback from center and defensive standout Jordy Kulper gave the Spartans their first and only lead of the game with 1:46 remaining.
For the next 55 seconds, UNCG flirted with the first upset of the tournament, only to allow Gonzaga to tie things back up on a Josh Perkins jumper. Neither team shot well from behind the arc on Thursday—they went a combined 8-for-45, which, yuck—but when it counted, Gonzaga was able to drain the go-ahead three ball. With the score tied with 21 seconds remaining and an eight-second differential between the game and shot clock, the Spartans went to a man defense; after sizing his defender up, Bulldogs freshman Zach Norvell Jr. let one fly from the right wing that brought out the stankiest of stank faces from the rookie. It also had one elderly Gonzaga fan thanking her Father in heaven.
The game will go down as an escape for Gonzaga. But as clutch and stanky as Norvell’s shot was, UNC Greensboro had every chance to put the game away; as was evident when Marvin Smith’s game-tying trey leapt out of the basket after falling halfway down the column, the Spartans just didn’t have the luck.