Making his way back across the court after post-game handshakes, Gonzaga men's basketball's sophomore forward Filip Petrusev stuck out his tongue, looked down, and let out a roar before rejoining his teammates.
He knew, now more than ever, that his time was here.
Petrusev's Zags were locked into a semifinals slugfest in the Bahamas with No. 11 Oregon (6-1) that felt much longer than just one overtime. No. 8 Gonzaga (8-0) was undermanned, beat up, and forced to survive multiple cold streaks on offense against a hyper-athletic Ducks team that sought to push them to their limit.
Despite all the question marks, the Bulldogs survived by the skin of their teeth with a 73-72 win, their first significant resume booster of the season. Petrusev snagged a decisive board with 0.1 seconds left off an OU miss to dash the Ducks’ hopes of a buzzer-beater. GU will now advance to the championship game of the Bad Boy Mowers Battle 4 Atlantis against Michigan Friday.
"You always wonder with every team — what is it really going to be like when your backs are pressed up against the wall and they've got hands on you?" coach Mark Few said during a post-game presser. "They responded terrifically, as good as any of our teams quite frankly."
It may have been quickly forgotten by many viewers, but the Zags led by as many as 17 midway through the first half. Coach Dana Altman’s squad fought back to cut the lead to 6 at halftime, with veteran point guard Payton Pritchard making play after play to keep gaining momentum. After that, there was no telling who would be moving on to face Michigan on Friday.
"Our guys battled hard after a bad start," Altman said. "It's on me to get them moving the ball better. It's on me to get them in better sets ... Our offense has got to be much more efficient than we showed tonight."
Petrusev netted 22 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in 40 minutes of play to lead the Zags’ effort in the post. Corey Kispert continued his shooting resurgence, going 5 of 8 from three to score 17 — he’s now made 12 three-pointers in just two games in the Bahamas so far.
But one could also blame the Ducks for beating themselves in crucial moments. Even with senior forward Killian Tillie fouled out in overtime, they struggled to put GU away for good. Shakur Johnson missed two free throws with 43 seconds left in overtime. For the second game in a row, Pritchard missed a potentially game-winning jump shot in the closing seconds.
Regardless, the Zags did what they needed to do to win. They shot a season-high 80% from the free throw line, although their most important free throw came following a miss by freshman forward Drew Timme. They also won the battle on the boards 50-45.
Few played only seven men with freshman forward Anton Watson out with an injury, but the lineup felt even thinner on the court. Senior guards Admon Gilder and Ryan Woolridge each had to miss extended portions of last night’s win against Southern Miss with injuries, and Tillie sat out the entire game. Against OU, Woolridge was slow to get up a couple of times after hitting the floor. Gilder only played 20 minutes.
Those nagging injuries may present a problem Friday, especially against a Michigan team that dominated No. 6 North Carolina for much of the second half in the semifinal. Will Watson play after sitting on the sideline in a boot this game? Will Woolridge and Gilder, the crux of the Zags’ backcourt so far this season, be able to contribute at the same level?
The Zags remain confident, regardless of the circumstances.
"It's kind of a warrior's mentality that Coach Few has been repeating over and over again," said Kispert. "When the ball goes up, we're going to run with who we've got. In our case, the 7-8 guys that are out on the floor happen to be really, really good."
The Zags will face Michigan in the championship game of the Bad Boy Mowers Battle 4 Atlantis at 11 a.m. Friday.