ANAHEIM, Calif. — Against a fourth-seeded Florida State squad (29-8, 13-5 ACC) boasting the nation's 10th-best defense, one that threw top-seeded Gonzaga (33-3, 16-0 West Coast Conference) out of rhythm for long stretches in the second half, easy points were challenging to produce.
So, three dunks on three consecutive possessions carried a little more weight than just six points. After FSU trimmed the lead to 49-42 with 13:33 minutes to play, Jeremy Jones jammed a putback dunk home. Brandon Clarke did the same 26 seconds later. Corey Kispert added a third — this one wasn't off a missed shot — and GU was up double-digits again at 55-42.
"It's always big when you can get a putback dunk or a layup," Clarke said. "That always helps [get] easy points for the most part and it just kinda gets the team going."
Those slams weren't the prelude to a game-ending run but they helped to alleviate some pressure, as GU fended off upset-minded FSU 72-58 and advanced to its third Elite Eight in five years.
"Hats off to Florida State. They are really, really tough to score on," head coach Mark Few said. "They're tough to get any rhythm [against], tough to keep off the glass, tough to stop in transition. We feel very fortunate to move on, but we feel great about it, too, because we knew we battled our tails off."
Both the Zags and Seminoles opened the game slowly, as they combined to shoot 3 of 10 before Rui Hachimura nailed a pull-up jumper from the left elbow. The 6-foot-8 forward scored six of GU's first 10 points — 17 in all — and was 2 of 3 to start the evening.
Just prior to the 11-minute mark of the first half, Hachimura grabbed a rebound, beamed ahead in transition and found a trailing Kispert for a triple. Clarke followed that up with a block on the other end and Zach Norvell Jr., waiting at the scorer's table, motioned the GU faithful to its feet, with the Zags leading 19-12 — its largest advantage of the game to that point.
The Bulldogs' switch-heavy defensive scheme stymied FSU's offense in the first half. GU limited dribble penetration, stayed vertical when contesting shots around the rim and corralled misses to attack on the break, where its offense is most potent.
The Seminoles shot 10 of 30 in the opening frame, were 2 of 11 from deep and turned it over nine times. Despite a better second-half performance (14 of 31), FSU finished 24 of 61 overall (39.3 percent) and 3 of 20 (15 percent) beyond the arc.
"They had a lot of offensive talent, [we were] trying to switch things up on 'em, contest every shot," Norvell said. "Early, they were physical. We wanted to be more physical than them, take the fight to them both on offensive and defensive ends, trying to switch up schemes and don't let them get too comfortable."
GU's lead swelled to as many as 14 in the first half at 33-19 before the Seminoles responded with an 8-2 run, behind two free throws from Terance Mann, an M.J. Walker layup, Mifondu Kabengle's turnaround jumper and a Trent Forrest transition bucket.
Just before the first-half horn blared, Josh Perkins pick-pocketed Forrest and raced ahead for an and-one layup, as the Zags entered intermission leading 38-27.
With 17:47 left in the first, 7-foot-4 center Christ Koumadje picked up his second foul and was relegated to the bench the rest of the half, taking just one shot (1 of 1) and scoring two points. In the second half, however, he scored six of FSU's first eight points and the Seminoles trimmed GU's lead down to 40-33 only two-plus minutes into the period.
"[We] came out a bit flat, the energy was low," Kabengele said. "But we fought really hard in the second half, Gonzaga played a good second half, they withstood our depth."
But at the 14:19 mark, Koumadje bit on a Hachimura shot fake and picked up his fourth foul, playing fewer than four minutes the rest of the half.
"He was having to guard [Clarke] and having to guard Rui," Few said of how GU got Koumadje in foul trouble. "Those are hard guards."
Koumadje's absence didn't deter the Seminoles, though. They responded to GU's aforementioned, dunk-filled 6-0 run, with a 13-5 spurt of their own, headlined by Devin Vassell's alley-oop dunk in transition, and cut the deficit to 60-56.
But Norvell, who's developed a reputation of hitting big shots, took a feed from Hachimura and connected on a triple with 3:04 to play, finally keeping FSU at bay for good.
"[That shot] felt really good, actually, just trying to stay confident and poised through the situation," said Norvell, whose 3-pointer sparked a 12-2 to end the game. "I was missing shots early on. But Josh Perkins and the other guys told me to keep my head up and next shot is going in, so credit to those guys."
After that bucket, GU held the Seminoles to 1-of-6 shooting, went 7 of 8 at the foul line and FSU never got closer than seven again.
"Wow, what a battle, like it always is when you play Florida State," Few said. "It's just a great, great win. We're absolutely ecstatic to be moving on to the Elite Eight and be 40 minutes away from the Final Four."
GU will face No. 3 Texas Tech (29-6, 14-4 Big 12) on Saturday at 3:09 p.m.