“That’s no 16 seed.” Those were the words of Gonzaga coach Mark Few as his team just edged in front of Georgia State 35-33 at halftime. The Panthers entered the game 22.5-point underdogs, as the 16 seed against the number one overall seed in the whole tournament and the consensus favorite to cut down the nets in New Orleans. None of that mattered to them as they made the juggernaut Bulldogs from Spokane battle deep into the second half. A final score of 93-72 may have made the game look like a blowout to anyone who just checked the score on their ESPN app afterwards, but everyone around the country who tuned in expecting that very result knows it’s a misnomer. Here’s how it really played out:
Playing the Spoiler
If this game was supposed to follow a script, Georgia State proceeded to tear it up over the first 20 minutes. Gonzaga got off to a slow shooting start, meeting stiff opposition from a pesky Panthers defense. They were playing passing lanes, they were contesting without fouling, and they were even picking their spots to run out in transition against the Zags, the fastest-tempo team in the country.
Gonzaga has two Second Team All-American frontcourt mates in Drew Timme and freshman wunderkid Chet Holmgren who entered the game shooting a combined 59.7% from the floor on 593 total attempts this season. They combined for 5-12 on field goals in the first half of this game as Eliel Nsoseme, Jalen Thomas, Ja’Heim Hudson and deep reserve Kaleb Scott gave them fits every time they took the ball down low. The Zags couldn’t get anything going from beyond the arc either, shooting 2-11 from downtown as a team in the first half. All of this shook them off the game and even fed into them making just 9 of 19 of their free throws.
Georgia State shot just 29% as a team themselves in the half, but they committed just 6 turnovers, made 10 of 13 foul shots and won the rebounding battle by 5 to stay fully in a game that was supposed to be over by the halftime buzzer.
Running Out of Gas
Several factors brought about a second-half turnaround for Gonzaga. The first part of it happened late in the first half, when Eliel Nsoseme went down in a freak injury. He wouldn’t return to the game and Georgia State missed his energy. In addition, the Panthers battled foul trouble all night, especially in the frontcourt. Jalen Thomas and Nsoseme – before his injury – both picked up their first two fouls in the first seven minutes of the game. Kaleb Scott played an extended role in Nsoseme’s absence and fouled out with 10:26 to go in the game. Thomas and Ja’Heim Hudson would join Scott on the bench with 5 fouls before all was said and done.
Georgia State losing all their frontcourt depth and resorting to playing bench guys significant minutes was one part of the equation. The other was Gonzaga adjusting and taking advantage. It became the Timme and Holmgren Show in the second half, with almost every possession running through the Zags’ big men. The Panthers made them fight for every bucket, but it was too much to overcome as those two went to work down low. Timme finished with a game-high 32 points on 13-21 shooting while Holmgren added 19 points and 17 rebounds.
With Gonzaga finding their offensive rhythm, the game was going to stay close in the second half as long as Georgia State was able to go shot-for-shot – and that lasted longer than maybe expected, with the Panthers making 9 of their first 14 shots. But once the shooting dried up, the game’s tempo was back to Gonzaga’s liking and they took full control with an extended 21-0 run in the middle of the half.
Setting the Standard
None of this was a given, and if the team had reacted to this being their tourney matchup like I’m sure many neutral and partisan observers did, the game could have gotten ugly quick. Gonzaga has blown out plenty of very good teams this year who showed up and played good games. If Georgia State showed up feeling any kind of way about being underseeded (And they probably were, taking into account this version of the team and comparing it to the version that lost games in December and January), this game would have been the 1-16 beatdown everyone was expecting.
But making the tournament after losing in last season’s Sun Belt title game wasn’t enough and Coach Lanier’s squad wanted to show the program that Georgia State has become. And it’s fair to say that’s what they did, taking the best team they’ve faced all year – and very possibly the best team in the country this season – all the way to the wire. And due to the foul trouble and the injury to Eliel Nsoseme, it was more or less a full team effort for the Panthers, with 12 guys seeing the court. The ones who will be back with this team have bonafide tourney experience now, and the mission next time is going to be to finish the job. And don’t take my word for it – this is what freshman forward Jamall Clyce had to say after the game: