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March Madness: Gonzaga heads to its first Final Four with victory over Xavier

Gonzaga's Johnathan Williams, who had 19 points,

Gonzaga's Johnathan Williams, who had 19 points, drives between Xavier's J.P. Macura, left, and Sean O'Mara in the West Regional final March 25, 2017 in San Jose, Calif.

SAN JOSE, Calif. — All the years. And for Gonzaga the tears. “Tears of joy,” from Mark Few after at last making it to basketball’s promised land, the Final Four.

Gonzaga, named for a saint, Aloysius Gonzaga, nicknamed the Bulldogs but known as the “Zags,” had qualified for the NCAA basketball tournament 19 previous times and never got past the regionals. Until Saturday.

Until the Zags, with the best record in the land, now 36-1, battered Xavier, 83-59, at SAP Center to win the West Regional and gain the first position in next weekend’s championship in the suburbs of Phoenix.

In the lead-up, after Gonzaga escaped West Virginia on Thursday night, Few was asked if he had a monkey on his back, and half-sneeringly, half-laughingly offered a denial, tossing other animals into the equation. But if there wasn’t anything on his shoulders, there was plenty on his mind.

He said the team, which lost only to Brigham Young and was the first West Coast Conference team to reach the Final Four since the great University of San Francisco squads with Bill Russell in the mid-1950s, lived up to his expectations.

“Awesome, awesome performance by the guys tonight,” Few said. “Just an incredible feeling of elation and satisfaction. It’s been a long, hard journey to get this program here.”

He and a team constructed on three key transfers, Johnathan Williams from Missouri, Nigel Williams-Goss from the U. of Washington and Jordan Mathews from Cal, did it on defense. Xavier was held to 35.5 percent on field goals.

And offense. Against a Xavier team which has flummoxed others by shifting from one defense to another, the Zags shot 47.5 percent.

Williams-Goss had 23 points, Williams 19.

J.P. Macura scored 18 for the Musketeers (24-14), who went in front 2-0 on a steal and drive in the opening seconds and never were ahead again.

Gonzaga grabbed this one early and never let go, much to the disappointment of comedian Bill Murray, sitting in the Xavier section, and whose son Luke is assistant to head coach Chris Mack.

“I give a lot of credit to Gonzaga,” Mack said. ”They were the better team. They’re really, really good. They’re big. They play disciplined on defense . . . In the second half, we couldn’t score at all. And [Gonzaga] 290th in the country in three-point shots, goes 12-for-24, 50 percent from the three-point line. You’re not going to win against many teams with their size [three 7-footers and someone 6-10]. You’re not going to win when they’re shooting it that well.”

The Zags were a No. 1 seed, deservedly, and Xavier a No. 11 that had upset everyone. Until Gonzaga.

Gonzaga’s main presence the past few seasons, overcoming injuries and disappointments, has been 7-1, 350-pound bearded center from Poland, Przemek Karnowski, who reportedly has more wins than any player in college history. Karnowski had five points, three rebounds, three assists and one block in 20 minutes of play Saturday night.

“He was the first one up the ladder to cut the net,” Few said. “He believed in us.”

Not everyone did. Skeptics said the Zags built their record against inferior opponents. Few shrugged. And at last answered.

“It starts with Przemek,” Few said. ”You have to make a decision. Do you want to double him? He’s like the Magic Johnson of [centers]. And he can throw out and he can handle a double team.

“The bigs can pass. When the guards step up and make shots like they did tonight . . .”

The Zags finally get to the Final Four.

New York Sports