NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament - Elite Eight

Joel Ayayı scored nine points and grabbed six rebounds in 28 minutes of action.

Gonzaga men’s basketball (30-0, 15-0) did what it hasn’t been able to do since 2017 and earned the program’s second Final Four berth Tuesday by beating the University of Southern California Trojans (25-8, 15-5) 85-66. 

“An awesome feeling to fight our way back to another Final Four, the guys came out and played with tremendous energy and toughness on both ends of the floor,” GU head coach Mark Few said. “I thought we got after them defensively and I haven’t seen the stats yet, but fought an even battle on the boards despite that great size [from USC].”

GU’s last trip to the Elite Eight was in 2019 when the Zags fell to Texas Tech 69-75. Returning to the national quarterfinal this season has included three games which the Zags have won by an average of 24 points. The team’s latest victory came on Sunday against West No. 11 seed Creighton 83-65.

Meanwhile, USC has been on a tear this March on its way to its first Elite Eight in 20 years. The Trojans upset No. 2 Kansas in a 34-point victory in the second round before taking down PAC-12 rival Oregon in the Sweet 16. USC’s top two performers all tournament long have been forwards Isaiah and Evan Mobley, who have been averaging 15 and 12 points per game this tournament respectively.

To start the Elite Eight showdown, GU disrupted the flow of not just the Mobley brothers, but the entire USC offense from the jump. GU forced three steals in the first two minutes of play with sophomore forward Drew Timme responsible for snagging two of them, as the Zags got ahead 7-0 early.

“[Timme] was dominant today, especially early when he came to set the tone attacking inside,” freshman guard Jalen Suggs said. “On the defensive end with the steal to start the game off like, ‘what, Drew with the pickpocket?’ He was fantastic as always and his impact is massive.”

With 14 minutes left in the first half, Timme would grab his third steal of the game leading to his ninth point. Timme finished with 23 points after a 15-point first half. 

The Zags went to its full-court, double-team press with 15 minutes left in the first period of action and continued to inhibit USC’s offensive flow, forcing seven turnovers by the Trojans with eight minutes still left to go. The Trojans were also shooting 6-of-18 at that point, while GU rolled ahead to a double digit lead.

A solid baseline cut by senior guard Corey Kispert that led to a nice under-the-basket finish grew the GU lead to 21 points with five minutes of first half action left, which at the time was the largest deficit USC had faced in a game all year.

The Trojans would go on an 8-0 run, finished off by an Isaiah Mobley 3-pointer, and reel the game back to 36-24. However GU’s fluid ball movement and ability to get out in transition helped the team shoot 54.1% from the field in the first 20 minutes. 

The Zags headed into the locker room with a comfortable 49-30 lead after GU put up 32 points in the paint compared to USC that managed 16 points down low despite the Trojans’ size advantage. 

Kispert, who technically had an off night by scoring 18 points on 6-of-19 shooting, got the second half scoring underway with a 3-pointer. However, both teams struggled in general from beyond the arc on Tuesday, with the two schools shooting below 34% from range.

“USC has been shooting the heck out of it from the 3 line and we did a great job taking away those, especially in the first half,” Few said. “We’ve just been really dialed into not just the scouting reports, but just the effort, fight and aggressiveness that’s needed.”

The Zags’ ball handling also took a slight downturn in the second half, turning the ball over eight times after only turning the ball over once in the first half. Still, the maintenance of a strong trap defense allowed GU to keep control of a lead that vacillated between 17 and 22 points throughout the final 15 minutes. 

While USC struggled to get its foot in the door, Suggs was continuing to make his presence known in multiple respects. The WCC Newcomer of the Year put up an  18-point, 10-rebound and eight-assist stat line for the game, all while keeping USC guards like Santa Clara transfer Tahj Eaddy from getting easy looks at the basket.

“You can’t have assist numbers or the looks that I got like that without the rest of the guys on the court,” Suggs said. “Playing together, not letting the ball get too sticky and everyone moving around then whoever gets the assist, gets the assist and whoever gets the bucket, gets the bucket. Then, we get a defensive stop and do it again.”

The Mobley brothers ended up finding moderate success scoring in the second half, with Isaiah Mobley putting up 19 points while his brother Evan dropped 17. Still, it wasn’t enough to overcome a GU lead that ballooned to 24 points in the final 10 minutes.

In the final 50 seconds of action, Few subbed out his starters who he personally greeted on the sideline. GU pulled away by 19-points and punched its ticket to the Final Four on Saturday where the Zags will take on UCLA at 5:34 p.m. PST.

Asher Ali is a sports editor. Follow him on Twitter: @asher_ali3.

Sports Editor

Major: Journalism / International Relations Because the ability to tell other people's stories within such a passionate community like GU's is an opportunity unlike any other.

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