It wasn't pretty at times, but Gonzaga is still moving on to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Bulldogs toughed out Akron in the opening round, 77-64. Gonzaga's perimeter defense was terrible in the first half ("terrible" was the nicest thing I could come up with). The Zips landed five of ten three balls before the break (some of them wide open) for a 38-35 lead at the intermission. Akron came out firing in the second half. Freshman "Humpty" Hitchens made a three pointer at the 15:02 mark to give Akron a six point lead. They would not make another field goal for nearly 13 minutes. That led to a 27-4 Gonzaga run and a victory (Steven Gray told me it was the best run he's seen from GU this season).
There was a strange feeling in the Rose Garden as Gonzaga trailed into the second half. It was very quiet even though the place was packed with GU faithful. I can't really explain it. It was a strange buzz (I'm guessing that doesn't make any sense). The play that finally got the fans back into it was Matt Bouldin's bucket to make it 49-47 Akron. They still trailed, but that eerie feeling inside the building went away and never came back.
Austin Daye said the team was never nervous...just flustered in the first half. Josh Heytvelt even mentioned to me that the team's track record the past two seasons (exiting in the first round in 2007 and 2008) might have had the team a little tense going into the game.
There is no doubt about it...Heytvelt was the player of the game. He scored 22 points and grabbed eight rebounds, but that's not all. He was irritating a lot of the Zips players, especially Chris McKnight (who threw Josh down at one point) and Nikola Cvetinovic (they had some slight verbal exchanges up and down the floor). That led to Josh drawing a lot of fouls (the Akron players got too aggressive with him) and getting to the free throw line (he was 7-for-8 from the charity stripe).
I do have to give credit to Akron for playing great defense, especially in the first half. They were a very physical team (poor Heytvelt was on the receiving end of a lot of the abuse). I just think they finally got tired. GU's transition offense was just too good.
There were a couple of times I caught some funny things from the Zips bench. The first was seeing forward Mike Bardo look at the scoreboard late in the first half (they were up 31-28 at the time). The look on his face was priceless...he had a huge smile on his face, but still looked like he was in total disbelief. The other funny moment came after Jeremy Pargo's dunk to make it 72-55 (you know which one I'm talking if you saw the game). They showed the replay on the scoreboard a couple of times (Pargo made Steve McNees look silly) and everybody in the stands "ooh'd and aw'd"...even the Akron players couldn't help but watch it again.
Random Thought Alert: Sometimes I think Austin Daye needs to not open his mouth. I'm not trying to be mean (I understand he's just a college kid), but he was rubbing a lot of people the wrong way. At one point he complained to an official, so the official went back after him to tell him to be quiet. The next time down the floor, that same official called Austin for a cheap foul. You don't want to get on the wrong side of the refs. I even saw some of the Bulldogs getting after him. At one point, Austin was trying to grab Jeremy Pargo by the shoulder (after Jeremy was called for a foul) and Jeremy pulled away from him and gave him a nasty look.
I have one more thing to mention about Akron. My assigned seat in "media row" was right in front of the Zips fans. I loved their passion, but they whined about everything. They couldn't just sit back and relax...they were yelling at the officials the entire game. I think I need earplugs for the second round game.
I don't know how you feel, but I know the fans we talked to in Portland have their confidence restored. When I asked them who they wanted Gonzaga to face next (obviously before we knew who the opponent would be), all of them said they didn't care because Gonzaga was going to blow past them. They're convinced the rust is off and the Bulldogs are ready to rock.
Next up for Gonzaga is Western Kentucky. That's right...The Hilltoppers (a 12-seed) upset Illinois (a 5-seed) on Thursday night. A No. 12 has now upset at No. 5 in 19 of the last 21 NCAA Tournaments.
One of the toughest things about the NCAA's is getting ready for a team you know nothing about in just a day, but GU actually benefits from the upset. The Bulldogs played Western Kentucky last season in the Great Alaska Shootout. Gonzaga won, 74-71. That's the one and only meeting between the two teams.
They'll face off again on Saturday. Tip-off is scheduled for 5:10, but as we saw today, those times can always be pushed back. The Bulldogs are pegged as an early nine-and-a-half point favorite.
There's no such thing as a day off during the tourney. The Zags and Hilltoppers will hold a closed practice tomorrow at the Rose Garden. They also meet with the media again. GU's press conference starts at 3:10. Western Kentucky's press conference is at 3:55pm. We'll stream both of those live on KREM.com.
We'll also have live coverage from Portland tomorrow on KREM 2 News, so stay tuned!