Salt Lake City — Facing a Gonzaga team that graduated from Cinderella to national power, Southern embraced the role of giant killer, knowing full well no 16-seed had ever defeated a No. 1 seed in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
Southern nearly became the first team to break that drought as the Jaguars kept the Bulldogs on the ropes for 40 minutes, before falling 64-58 on Thursday afternoon.
“Coming into the game we thought we were going to make history,” senior guard Jameel Grace said. “No one comes into a game expecting to lose. We always expected to come in the game and win the game.”
Kevin Pangos made a pair of big three-pointers to help Gonzaga escape down the stretch as the Jaguars gave the Zags everything they could handle, raining down a flurry of 3-pointers to kept Gonzaga on the ropes.
The Jaguars came up short against the nation’s top-ranked team when shots stopped falling from the perimeter in the final minute.
Derrick Beltran scored 21 points and shot 50 percent from 3-point range to keep Southern (23-10) within striking distance. Kelly Olynyk scored 21 points and collected 10 rebounds, while Pangos added 16 points for the Bulldogs (32-2), who will advance to play ninth-seeded Wichita State in the third round Saturday.
“The more I watched them on the tape, the more I realized these guys were going to be a handful,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “They defend every possession and kind of direct your shots. They have size and athleticism around the rim, which they showed.”
Southern kept things close early into the second half with its long-range shooting. The Jaguars made life uncomfortable for Gonzaga, as Beltran drilled a 3-pointer to make it 41-40 with 13.48 left.
Olynyk then converted a three-point play a few seconds later to spark a 11-1 run for Gonzaga. By the time Pangos capped the run with a jumper, the Zags seemed to be in control with a 52-41 lead.
But Southern found a way to claw back into the game yet again, answering with a 15-4 run to get back into it. The Jaguars cut it to 54-52 on a Beltran 3-pointer with 5:19 remaining. Moore then tied it on a pair of free throws and Beltran tied it again at 56-56 on a jumper with 3:46 left.
“No shot or possession was bigger than the next,” Beltran said. “We were just trying to get the win.”
Pangos came to the rescue at the right time for the Zags, drilling a 3-pointer to break the tie and then hitting another one to give Gonzaga a 62-58 advantage with 1:54 remaining.
The Jaguars had a couple of more chances to cut it closer but Miller missed a pair of jumpers in the final two minutes and Pangos secured the victory by making two free throws with 14.3 seconds left.
Coming so close did not feel like a moral victory to the Jaguars
“We came into this game trying to win the game,” Beltran said. “It’s not a good feeling (to lose) because we worked so hard all year long.”
Southern kept things close early with hot outside shooting. The Jaguars shot 5-of-12 (41.7 percent) from the perimeter in the first half to keep Gonzaga uncomfortable.
They quickly erased a 7-0 deficit behind the 3-point line. Miller got Southern on the board with his first 3-pointer and gave the SWAC champions an 8-7 lead with his second.
The Bulldogs reclaimed a 14-10 lead after Kevin Pangos and Sam Dower answered with 3-pointers of their own. But Southern went back ahead 16-14 after Brandon Moore and Derrick Beltran drilled baskets from outside on consecutive possessions and Southern eventually built a 19-16 lead when Yondarius Johnson converted a three-point play.
“Those guys thought they had a chance in the locker room,” Southern coach Roman Banks said. “They believed in our vision and our game plan.”
That lead did not last long. The Zags answered with a 12-2 run, going up 28-21 on a Pangos 3-pointer with 6:09 left before halftime.
Southern trimmed the deficit to two on a jumper from Javan Mitchell and on another 3-pointer from Beltran. But Beltran could not convert the ensuing free throw to cut it to a point. Gonzaga remained a step ahead the remainder of the half and took a 34-31 lead into the locker room.
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