Bulldogs 'Saw' the Way to Win, Took It and
Advance to Second Round of NCAA Tournament
Morrison Scores 35 to lead Gonzaga to Victory over Xavier, 79-75
By Peter Tormey
SALT LAKE CITY -- After Gonzaga's heart-pounding, come-from-behind 79-75 victory over Xavier on Thursday, Player of the Year Candidate Adam Morrison, who scored 35 points, said the Bulldogs never panicked. Instead, said Morrison, they hunkered down and battled like any self-respecting Bulldog would do when backed into a corner.
"We have a saying at Gonzaga, it's 'keep sawing wood,'" the consensus All-American junior forward said as the 28-3 Bulldogs extended their nation's longest winning streak to 19 games and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs take on the No. 6 seed Indiana Hoosiers at 5:10 p.m., PST, Saturday; the winner advances to Oakland next week for the regionals. The Hoosiers (19-11) beat No. 11 seed San Diego State (24-9) 87-83 Thursday.
"We just kept sticking to what we do," said the mustachioed marvel. The No. 5 ranked Bulldogs, a No. 4 seed in the tournament, surrendered the lead with 8:30 left in the first half and trailed until 1:58 left in the game. While Gonzaga took a 39-36 deficit into the locker-room at halftime, Morrison said there the team made no major adjustments at the break in their battle against the No. 14-seed Musketeers (21-11) from Cincinnati.
"We really didn't make too many adjustments," he said. "We just kept trying to climb back in."
The crowd was subdued and almost seemed almost to favor Xavier until the Zags made their second-half run and the Huntsman Center exploded with applause.
At the half, Gonzaga President Rev. Robert J. Spitzer, S.J., knew what the Bulldogs needed to do to secure a victory.
"We've just seen us play some of the best defense that we have played all year, but we need to figure out a way to break Adam (Morrison) loose, which I am confident we will do," said Rev. Spitzer, who was sitting near the Salt Lake City-based McCarthey brothers, Phi and Tom, for whom the University's new arena, the McCarthey Athletic Center, is named thanks to their generous contributions.
Senior forward J.P. Batista, from Brazil, whom Morrison called "the heart and soul of our team" after the game, put back a rebound to cut Xavier's lead to 71-69 with 2:20 left in the game before Morrison iced a three-pointer with 1:58 remaining that brought the crowd to its collective feet and gave the Zags their second lead of the game - a lead they never relinquished.
"It was great," said Batista, who finished with eight rebounds and 18 points. "We just kept sawing wood, sawing wood. He (Morrison) was in a rhythm and he hit a great shot. It felt great."
Morrison -- who made 11 of 21 shots, four of eight three-pointers and was nine of 11 from the free-throw line -- said he relishes opportunities to make big plays.
"All yearlong I've wanted to be the guy that takes the big shot," he said. "I got my rhythm going into it and it felt good. I was going to take that shot, regardless, and it went in."
"Welcome to Adam's world," said Gonzaga's Coach Mark Few. "He's a great shot-maker and an incredible competitor."
Still, a lay-up by Stanley Burrell cut the Zags' lead to one (74-73) with 51.9 seconds left before Morrison found Batista under the basket for a high-percentage shot to put GU ahead 76-77. Morrison snagged perhaps the most important rebound of his career with less than 30 seconds to go and made two free-throws with 18.4 seconds left to seal the victory for the Zags at 78-73. Freshman Jeremy Pargo sank a free-throw to boost the Bulldogs to 79-73 before Burrell scored the final two points of the game - but they were not enough.
"It was one of those games where it could have been easy for anybody to check out and say, you know, 'Nice job, Xavier.' But we finally got the lead. ... That rebound, you know I'm not the greatest rebounder on this team so I was pretty happy with myself. I knew if I could make the free-throws at the end it would pretty much be over."
Morrison said he could empathize with how the Musketeers felt after the game because the Zags have been in that same jam.
"They played hard," he said. "I know what it feels like to be up the whole game and not come away with a win in the NCAA Tournament. That was us with Texas Tech last year."
Morrison said the Zags -- who trailed by as much as nine points (at 13:22 left in the game) after a triad of three-pointers by Justin Cage, Johnny Wolf and Burrell -- talked in their on-the-court huddles about making up points slowly, steadily and patiently.
"That's what we tried to do and we came out of here with a win," said Morrison, who, after the game, called it one of the most emotional victories of his career.
"As you guys know, I'm a pretty emotional player," Morrison said. "I kind of feed off of what other people say to me, or what other people do."
With upsets Thursday like Montana beating Nevada, Alabama beating Marquette, Wisconsin-Milwaukee pounding Oklahoma and Texas A&M downing Syracuse, Few was asked if the relatively recent reduction in Division I basketball scholarships has created more parity in college basketball.
"I think it's product of the reduction in scholarships. I think it's a product of AAU basketball now where everyone is playing and they are not intimidated or afraid and there is just a tremendous amount of parity in college basketball," he said. "I think that was the story tonight....There's great parity in college basketball."
One of the most important statistics, Few said, was that the Bulldogs were hammered on the boards 21-15 at halftime but rallied to finish the game with more rebounds than the Musketeers, 33-31. As Morrison had predicted before the game, rebounds were indeed critical to victory.
After the game, some of the Zag faithful gathered at the Orbit Café downtown before heading to the opulent, three-story McCune Mansion, Salt Lake City's first million-dollar home that was built in 1901 and purchased in 1999 by the McCarthey brothers, Tom and Phil, who have painstakingly restored it to its original splendor. The home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a state treasure that embodies fine taste, comfort and charm for personal and business occasions. In so doing, the McCartheys have truly preserved an historical gem for future generations.
The McCartheys most generously opened the mansion to Gonzaga fans Thursday night along with an impeccable spread of corned beef, cabbage, mashed potatoes, potato pancakes and lucious desserts for all. The first-floor parlor, which includes a wood floor made of the now virtually extinct white satin mahogany, was filled with Bulldogs - many of whom said their hearts can't handle too many more nail-biters like the one they had just witnessed.
"It's truly incredible," said exasperated Gonzaga Trustee and longtime benefactor Don Herak of Spokane. "I have only missed two games this year and they do it to me every time. It's truly unbelievable. That's all I can say."
Indeed, after the game Coach Few said the Bulldogs have had a lot of practice this year with winning close games, estimating that more than two dozen of their games this season have been decided in the last three minutes.
The Bulldogs will hold a shoot-around this afternoon at the University of Utah's Huntsman Center and will once again talk to the media.
Maybe the tide finally turned on winter today, St. Patrick's Day, as we awoke this morning to rain, not several inches of snow as we did on Wednesday. Of course, it wasn't long ago that it snowed during the St. Patrick's Day Parade in Spokane.