BOISE, Idaho — The Gonzaga Bulldogs long ago shed the label of being a small-time program. That will happen when a team reaches the NCAA tournament 20 consecutive times and when it holds the nation’s longest streak for advancing past the tournament’s opening round.
For large stretches of Thursday’s game between the fourth-seeded Bulldogs and No. 13 seed North Carolina Greensboro, however, it looked as if that streak might come to an end — never more so than when Spartans senior forward Jordy Kuiper cleaned up a missed shot and scored with 1:46 remaining to give UNC Greensboro a two-point lead.
But just when it looked as if the Bulldogs were about to suffer the kind of upset that put them on the map in 1999, the experience that comes with being a fixture in March Madness — and the ability to cope with the stress that it brings — made all the difference.
So while UNC Greensboro made a series of mistakes in the final 1:40 that determined its fate, Gonzaga kept its decade-long streak of advancing intact with a 68-64 victory at Taco Bell Arena.
“No, it doesn’t get any easier,” Gonzaga Coach Mark Few said afterward. “These first-round games are hard. They’re really hard. And I think people get a little misled when they see the seed numbers up there. . . . That’s a really good team that we were fortunate enough to beat.”
For 38 minutes, the Spartans (27-8) looked as if they had everything it took to become the first Cinderella story of this year’s tournament. Despite Gonzaga (31-4) doing precisely what it hoped by forcing UNC Greensboro into a long game from behind the three-point arc — it went 0 for 13 from three-point range in the first half and 3 for 22 for the game — Greensboro was able to hang around.
That almost entirely was due to the Spartans’ ability to relentlessly attack the paint and score — which they did repeatedly in the second half as the teams traded baskets in what was a highly entertaining game.
“We’re a spread team,” said UNC Greensboro Coach Wes Miller, a 35-year-old who is already in his seventh season and who probably will be a hot name on the coaching carousel this spring. “We try to open the floor up and let the guys go.”
That was the strategy that left the Spartans on the verge of a major upset. But it also wound up being their undoing.
The play of the game unfolded with 1:05 remaining. After Kuiper’s putback was followed by Gonzaga’s Silas Melson missing the front end of a one-and-one with 1:21 remaining, UNC Greensboro had a golden opportunity to take a two-possession lead and put the game away.
Instead, the Spartans failed to get a shot off. Junior guard Demetrius Troy tried to deliver an ambitious alley-oop to a cutting James Dickey on the baseline. But when Dickey couldn’t corral it, the ball went out of bounds and back to Gonzaga. And after the Bulldogs answered with a jumper from redshirt junior guard Josh Perkins with 54 seconds left to tie it at 64, UNC Greensboro never led again.
“I don’t think any of our [playcalls] were bad calls, but you think, ‘What if?’ ” Miller said. “I think that’s what you do in this situation as a player and coach.
“People say, ‘Man, you were pretty gutsy when you threw that lob.’ Demetrius and James, they’ve connected on a lot of lobs this year, and we weren’t going to be afraid tonight. We were going to come out swinging.”
And while UNC Greensboro certainly did that, that aggression cost them multiple times. After Perkins made the game-tying jumper, Miller opted to have his team attempt to score quickly to set up a potential final shot. But junior guard Francis Alonso wound up getting stuck and launched an ugly shot off the side of the backboard.
Then, after Gonzaga’s redshirt freshman Zach Norvell Jr. buried what proved to be the game-winning three-pointer with 20.8 seconds remaining, Alonso was called for an offensive foul on the ensuing possession.
“We didn’t execute in the last minute-and-a-half,” Miller said. “We’ll have to go through the film and look at that.”
It is precisely because Miller’s team didn’t execute in those final 90 seconds that the Spartans are headed back to Greensboro and Gonzaga will remain here to face No. 5 seed Ohio State — which outlasted No. 12 seed South Dakota State . Gonzaga is seeking its fourth consecutive trip to the Sweet 16.
That’s not to say that Gonzaga was perfect. It missed four straight shots in the paint in the final 90 seconds that nearly cost it the game, and the Bulldogs needed a dose of luck when a potential game-tying three-pointer by Marvin Smith went halfway down before rattling out.
But when a team has been in these positions so many times before, it knows what it needs to do to survive and advance. And for the next 12 months, the UNC Greensboro Spartans will be forced to sit and think about what could have been if they had handled those final moments better.
“I looked at Coach and said, ‘We’ve got this. I trust you, and we’re trusting each other,’ ” Perkins said.
“I’m glad I’m here with this guy, and we’re not done yet.”