SALT LAKE CITY — The Southern University Jaguars are from Baton Rouge, La., but it sounded as if they were playing in front of a home crowd at EnergySolutions Arena on Thursday afternoon.
The No. 16-seeded Jaguars won over any neutral observers in the stadium by playing with enough effort and efficiency to have battled to a tie with top-seeded Gonzaga with 3:46 remaining in the game.
Gonzaga’s sophomore guards, Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., each netted a 3-point basket late in the game to lift the Zags to a 64-58 victory that avoided the first loss by a No. 1 seed to a No. 16 in NCAA tournament history.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few said he was surprised when the crowd started swinging toward Southern, considering the Zags benefited from their usual strong fan support on the road, and also that former Gonzaga star John Stockton spent his entire Hall of Fame career playing for the Utah Jazz in this city.
But then Few found himself with at least a pinky toe on the Jaguars’ bandwagon.
“I think everybody was moved by their effort and their resilience and their confidence,” Few said of the Jaguars. “If I wasn’t coaching on the other sideline, they would be a tough team not to root for.”
Few cited the remarkable rebuilding job Southern coach Roman Banks has achieved in two seasons after the Jaguars bounced back from academic sanctions.
“Just knowing a couple of years ago where this program has come from and the 15 young men that decided to sacrifice themselves into believing a vision,” Banks said. “(They) laid it on the line every night for them to pour it out tonight is exemplary of what they’ve been doing all season long.”
Southern made 10 of 23 attempts from 3-point range, often against solid Gonzaga defense, and also played stout defense under the basket – the Jaguars finished with eight blocked shots.
“They definitely weren’t scared to jump up and meet you at the rim,” GU forward Kelly Olynyk said. “They played really physical down low they’re a very athletic team, and we kinda just had to fight through that.”
Southern players took no moral victory in the narrow defeat. Guard Jameel Grace said the Jaguars came into the tournament believing they could pull off the big upset. And in the end, they said they were undone by their inability to stop the pick-and-roll plays between Pangos and Olynyk.
As Banks reviewed the close game during the interview session, he grew emotional.
“It’s exciting to see what a group of young men can do when they believe,” he said. “(We’re) basically an unknown ballclub that proved to many people that they can play the game of basketball. And, I also will remember, from a coaching perspective in this tournament, two or three bad possessions can cost you a basketball game.”Dave Boling: 253-597-8440 firstname.lastname@example.org @DaveBoling