They were the last two players on the Taco Bell Arena floor, their teammates and opponents already in their respective locker rooms.
A chest bump for all to see was in order.
Gonzaga’s Josh Perkins and Zach Norvell Jr., just minutes removed from two of the biggest shots they’ve made, celebrated together, relieved and at the same time energized following a 68-64 win Thursday.
Perkins hit the game-tying shot, and Norvell provided the winner in the final minute to avoid the upset bid by 13th-seeded UNC Greensboro.
“Those two are really confident players,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “Probably more so than anybody in our program, they have a high belief in themselves and at times that can hurt us. But at times, especially down the stretch of the game when obviously pressure is up a little bit and somebody has to step up and make a play, that’s when you want those two guys.”
The No. 4-seed Bulldogs (31-4) won an NCAA Tournament game for a 10th straight year, but the Spartans (27-8) made them work all 40 minutes for it. The last 7:26 of the game never saw any lead larger than four points after Gonzaga had led by 12 early in the second half.
That confidence Few mentioned? It was on display with Perkins’ tying jumper with 56 seconds left, just inside the 3-point line, normally the sort of shot a team wants to avoid, especially in such a tight game.
“I looked at coach and said, ‘We’ve got this,’ ” said Perkins, a redshirt junior guard. “He was like, ‘I trust you and we’re trusting each other.’ ”
On Norvell’s dagger, a 3-pointer with 20.9 seconds left for a 67-64 edge, he came off a screen and drilled it with the window closing quickly. The stout Spartans defense was strong off screens, so the redshirt freshman said he took a quick jab step back toward the screen to create just enough room for the open look.
Being confident tends to last throughout a game, no matter what sort of shots preceded it.
“Prior to that shot, guys, he was 2-for-11, so it wasn’t exactly one of his greatest games in the Zag uni,” Few said. “But when he sized it up, I knew it was going in.”
UNC Greensboro got off to a strong start, forcing Gonzaga into six turnovers in the first 8 minutes for an early lead, but the Bulldogs took advantage of the Spartans’ lack of early offense. UNCG missed all 13 3-pointers it took in the first half, and Gonzaga led by as much as 12 with 16 minutes left.
The Spartans chipped away, making the Gonzaga-heavy crowd a little uneasy, and getting the upset alert going with Jordy Kuiper’s tip-in with 1:49 to play. But the Spartans didn’t score again, turning it over three times afterward, and missing their only field-goal attempt.
Gonzaga made just 1-of-4 free throws after Norvell’s 3, but the Spartans’ offense was out of sync down the stretch.
“We’ll always think about that last minute or so and think kind of ‘what if,’ ” UNC Greensboro coach Wes Miller said.
The Spartans were ranked 32nd nationally with 9.6 3-pointers made per game but were just 3-of-22 on Thursday. Few said he was impressed with how UNCG was able to create points by its guards driving the lane “better than we had seen them do all year.” Guards Francis Alonso and Demetrius Troy had 16 points apiece.
Senior forward Johnathan Williams led Gonzaga with a game-high 19 points and 13 rebounds. Perkins added 16 points and Norvell had 15. With 5:12 to play, Perkins picked up his fourth foul, but Few kept him in the game.
“Basically out of necessity,” he said. “He’s essentially the only point guard we have, and they were pressing us. But also there’s some trust built up after being with him, around him, for four years.”
Gonzaga, which lost in last year’s national championship game, will play No. 5 Ohio State in the second round of the West Region on Saturday.
“UNCG gave us all we can handle. When adversity hit us … we responded how a team should,” Perkins said.