Two minutes, that’s all it was. Actually, it was less than two minutes. With 1:52 remaining, Nigel Williams-Goss backed down Theo Pinson smartly, banked in a 12-footer and Gonzaga had a 65-63 lead.
In college basketball’s national-championship game.
Zag fans would like to freeze that moment in time, forever embrace it. They’d like to replay those last 112 seconds and beseech the gods to give them any kind of nod, any sort of break -- an unlikely three, a mishandled pass by North Carolina, any of those silly, random things that occur all the time in a basketball game -- to get Gonzaga its first national championship.
I caught up the other day with Zags assistant Tommy Lloyd, Mark Few’s right-hand man. And there’s no doubt that the what-might-have-been questions are rattling around in the minds of not only fans, but coaches.
Lloyd has major say on substitutions. He rehashes how Gonzaga might have better handled a night when all its bigs were battling foul trouble. (Zach Collins played 14 minutes. My contention is, if Collins, the newly minted Portland draftee, had been able to stay on the floor for 19-20 minutes, Gonzaga wins).
If Zag fans would like to stop the game at the 1:52 mark, Lloyd wouldn’t mind doing that, either.
“Is there a way, when Nigel hit one of those shots to put us up, could we have called a timeout?” he muses.
In other words, call a Ben Howland timeout -- one immediately after you score -- just to make sure your defensive strategy is perfectly understood.
“There’s no guarantee things would be any different,” Lloyd concedes. “They very well could have scored.”
And the Tar Heels did. Pinson hit Justin Jackson, guarded by Williams-Goss, at the 1:40 mark for a three-point play underneath and Carolina led for good, 66-65.
At 1:25, Williams-Goss got tangled up with Pinson and rolled his ankle, which may have had its own killing effect on Gonzaga.
Off a high ball screen, Williams-Goss missed a 16-footer at the 1:17 mark. Then those gods frowned again on the Zags, as Kennedy Meeks, in a scrum with 49 seconds left, had his hand on the end line with the ball in the other, an official didn’t see it, and Isaiah Hicks made a difficult, driving shot on Johnathan Williams III for a 68-65 UNC lead at the 25-second mark.
At the other end, Williams-Goss, off another high ball screen, lost his footing ever so briefly at the top of the key, put up a shot that Meeks rejected -- your Sports Illustrated cover -- and the resulting runout sealed Carolina’s 71-65 victory.
Few took criticism for keeping the ball in Williams-Goss’ hands when he was apparently gimpy. Counters Lloyd, “He’d been the guy that’d delivered all year, and he’d made two big shots on the two previous possessions. He was kind of having a magical season. We didn’t necessarily say, ‘Shoot.’ We put the ball in his hands and trusted he’d make a good decision. Defensively, they made a great play (at 68-65).”
That was the intrigue of Williams-Goss in his only season in Gonzaga blue. Wherever the precise location of the line between go-to guy and he’s-trying-to-do-too-much, Williams-Goss occasionally would dance on that fine demarcation. In those waning moments against Carolina, he took at least four straight shots. But it was a night when Przemek Karnowski couldn’t get the ball to go down, and on the shot Meeks blocked, the videotape doesn’t seem to show any other real option available to Williams-Goss.
Another takeaway by Lloyd: The Carolina defense Gonzaga faced in the championship game was better than the Carolina defense it defeated two days earlier -- at least on this night.
“I liked our game plan going in, how we guarded them,” Lloyd said. “I thought that was pretty effective. Their pressure, I felt bothered us more than even South Carolina’s. They had us running our offense farther out, had us on our heels.”
Predictably, a 37-2 season that ultimately ends in defeat left him -- and no doubt, most of the Zags -- with conflicted feelings.
“Obviously, you’re disappointed,” he said, remembering the immediate aftermath. “But you’re quickly able to put it into perspective. It’s (the Final Four) such an awesome moment, where you appreciate everything that’s happened. The other side is, man, what could we have done a little differently? I think you understand if you win, it’s one of those forever deals. Also, you understand how hard it is to get there. That next opportunity, there’s no guarantee.”
Indeed, there is not. In March, the line is sometimes exceedingly fine. If Jordan Mathews doesn’t hit a late three against West Virginia in the Sweet 16, the Zags probably don’t win and spend the off-season labeled as tournament underachievers.
For Gonzaga partisans, the good news is, it was a sensational, breakthrough season, and for Lloyd, an affirmation. It doesn’t have to be a one-off.
“Being on the inside kind of reminded me: Our process and our culture were right,” Lloyd says. “We don’t have to sacrifice our ideals to achieve things at the highest level. Some people called it (the season) magical. I don’t think it was. I think we were just good enough, it wasn’t an anomaly, or that something magical had to happen.
“No, we are that good.”