Some think this season's Gonzaga team, which arrived at Madison Square Garden for the NIT Season Tip-Off ranked No. 10 in the country, might be the one that finally takes coach Mark Few all the way to the Final Four. But the Zags nearly squandered a 15-point second-half lead before hanging on for a 73-66 win over gritty St. John's in Friday night's championship game.
Trailing 56-41, the Red Storm (4-1) cut the deficit to 69-66 when Phil Greene IV hit his second straight three-pointer with 59.5 seconds to play. After Zags point guard Kevin Pangos missed a three, St. John's had a chance to tie. Rysheed Jordan (18 points) drove to the basket but wound up committing his ninth turnover of the game.
The Red Storm got the ball back when Greene (20 points) forced a turnover by Gonzaga's Gary Bell on the inbounds play with 25.1 seconds left. But St. John's gave it back without a shot when D'Angelo Harrison (15 points) was called for charging at the 15-second mark. Pangos (11 points, nine assists), who was named tournament MVP, and Byron Wesley (12 points) closed it out for the Zags (6-0) as each hit two foul shots.
Asked about the call that went against him, Harrison said: "The whistle didn't go my way. It was a big play in the game."
It was a great effort by the Red Storm as it tries to gain national credibility, but Greene said: "We don't like moral victories. We felt we should've won. We fought, but it didn't go our way."
The Red Storm was at a severe size disadvantage against a Zags front line with 7-1 Przemek Karnowski (10 points, seven rebounds) and 6-10 Kyle Wiltjer, with 6-10 Domantas Sabonis (14 points, eight rebounds, 6-for-6 shooting), son of former Trail Blazers star Arvydas, coming off the bench.
But just as it did in Wednesday's semifinal win over Minnesota, St. John's showed some grit, forcing eight first-half turnovers by Gonzaga and taking a 20-15 rebounding edge.
Despite hard-nosed defense, SJU trailed at the break 33-28 as the Zags shot 50 percent and dominated 16-8 in the paint. Bell scored nine points in a 16-5 second-half surge that gave Gonzaga a 53-38 lead, and Red Storm shot-blocker Chris Obekpa picked up his fourth foul with 16:12 left.
Down the stretch, St. John's veteran toughness again came to the fore as Harrison and Pointer led an 18-8 surge to cut Gonzaga's lead to 64-59, although Obekpa fouled out shortly after his return. But from that point, the Red Storm let Wesley drive to the rim twice, the first resulting in two foul shots and the second an uncontested layup.
"We went small, but their bigs didn't hurt us in the end," Harrison said. "Wesley got two layups."