Ecstatic and elated, the Gonzaga men’s basketball team bounced off one another, then parted to form a circle to allow one person to enter.
Fifty-five-year-old head coach Mark Few stepped in — and did a handstand.
“It’s not quite as prevalent as it was after I hit 50. There’s some rotator cuff issues I worry about,” he said. “But in the moment, and the guys motivate me enough, I lose my mind and attempt it once in a while.”
It was hard for Few not to be emotional following his team’s 90-84 win over Ohio State on Saturday night at Taco Bell Arena. The Bulldogs advanced to a fourth straight Sweet Sixteen, a run preceded by five straight losses in a situation like Saturday’s, in the second round.
“We want him to do it again,” junior guard Josh Perkins said. “... When coach pulls out a handstand, it’s a good performance, team-wise, and we need to see it four more times.”
Said Few: “I can’t think of any better feeling than winning games in March.”
An incredible start and a strong finish were the recipe for the West Region’s No. 4 Gonzaga (32-4) to advance. The Bulldogs blitzed out to a 15-0 start, but No. 5 Ohio State (25-9) was not going to lie down.
The Buckeyes chipped away, taking a 67-62 lead with 6 minutes left, but they were smothered by an 11-0 Gonzaga run that kept the Bulldogs ahead for good.
Gonzaga was a brutal 6-of-16 at the free-throw line before sophomore forward Killian Tillie hit a layup, then the free throw, for a 68-67 lead. Rui Hachimura, who had 25 points off the bench, hit a 3-pointer with 3:44 left for a 73-67 lead to cap the run.
It was Hachimura’s first 3-pointer since November.
“That’s nice to hear,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said, his voice dripping with irony.
Zach Norvell Jr.’s 3-pointer with 2:20 to play was the exclamation point, as the Bulldogs made their free throws down the stretch, keeping the Buckeyes at bay.
“Those were crushing,” Holtmann said of the 3-pointers.
Norvell’s love of candy and all sorts of sweet things when he was little earned him the nickname “Snacks.”
On Saturday, he ate up the Ohio State defense like a bag of M&Ms.
Gonzaga’s uber-confident redshirt freshman guard had career highs of 28 points and 12 rebounds after scoring 15 points Thursday in the Bulldogs’ first-round win over UNC Greensboro. He hit the go-ahead 3 with less than a minute left in that win.
“He’s got a persona that we really need in our program right now, quite frankly,” Few said. “We have an overabundance of introverts, and that’s one thing he’s not. ... He’s just a fiery guy with some swag from Chicago.”
While redshirting last season, Norvell was part of Gonzaga’s run to the national championship game. Holtmann said having players of his caliber redshirting is part of why the Bulldogs have made 20 straight NCAA Tournaments.
“Behind great guards, I learned a lot from those guys, and to be in the moment, to be out there is huge,” said Norvell, whose previous career high in rebounds was nine.
The Bulldogs flashed their renowned depth, but the Buckeyes weathered just about every swing. Even with the pro-Gonzaga crowd against them, they showed a ton of fight. Junior forward Keita Bates-Diop scored 28 points, senior guard Kam Williams had 19 and junior guard C.J. Jackson added 18.
Outrebounded 39-22 by Gonzaga, Ohio State shot 51.4 percent in the second half. It was a far cry from when the Bulldogs routed the Buckeyes 86-59 on Nov. 23 in Portland at the PK80-Phil Knight Invitational.
“This group really turned a corner at some point,” said Holtmann, who only had seven scholarship players during the summer. “... It turned a corner and flipped the switch and we were really never the same. And it was all positive. We just kept growing together. I’ve been proud of a lot of teams but this one is up there.”
Playing in Boise for the first time since 2000, Gonzaga felt at home.
“Boise is a Zag-friendly place,” Few said.
But the next time may be quite a bit more hostile, as the school is pondering a potential move to the Mountain West. Before that’s even given much thought by Few and company, a quest for a second straight Final Four continues in Los Angeles. And maybe that rotator cuff gets tested a little more.