Gonzaga, the top-ranked team in the country, had planned to ride its high-flying attack to its first national title, but was stopped short by No. 4 Arkansas in a 74-68 setback in a West Regional semifinal on Thursday night.
Chet Holmgren was plagued by foul trouble and the other, Drew Timme, was harassed by Arkansas defenders, and the Gonzaga basketball team seemed to be anything but the offensive juggernaut that had been running at peak efficiency during the regular season on Saturday.
They pushed on as their difficulties became more severe, flubbing passes and hustling shots while showing their anguish on their faces. Because he knew how valuable each score was, Timme smacked his palms together in frustration after missing a layup after getting fouled.
With 16.5 seconds remaining, Andrew Nembhard sank a 3-pointer to pull Gonzaga within 68-65, the team’s closest margin of victory since early in the second half. Arkansas, on the other hand, hit its free throws, and Gonzaga never had an opportunity to get the ball back and square the score.
The Razorbacks were led by J.D. Notae, who finished with 21 points on 9 of 29 shooting, while Jaylin Williams, who played a key role in getting Holmgren into foul trouble, finished with 15 points and 12 rebounds, performing the most of his work against Gonzaga’s two big men. Immediately after Au’diese Toney slammed the ball down just before the buzzer rang, the Razorbacks surged off the bench and onto the floor to applaud their accomplishment.
Arkansas, which defeated lower-seeded Vermont and New Mexico State by a single point in Buffalo last weekend, has progressed to the regional championship for the second straight season.
That was considerably more familiar ground for Gonzaga, which had advanced to the round of 16 for the seventh straight tournament — and was attempting to return to the Final Four for the third time in the previous five attempts — before being eliminated. A second goal for the Zags was to alleviate the pain of previous season, when they rode an undefeated record into the national championship game before getting thrashed in overtime by Baylor.
One one-and-done Minnesotan, the energetic guard Jalen Suggs, was traded away and replaced by another, the absurdly long and languid Holmgren, who is 7 feet tall and as skinny as a maypole. This was a squad that had been retooled.
Holmgren, who had just nine minutes of action in a scoreless first half, was whistled for his fourth foul with 8 minutes 36 seconds left in the game as Toney scored and converted a free throw to extend Arkansas’ advantage to 51-46 with 8 minutes 36 seconds remaining.
On Notae’s drive to the hoop with 3 minutes 29 seconds remaining, he returned to the game and played for another two minutes before getting tagged for his fifth foul. Holmgren pleaded with the authorities by raising his hands high over his head, imploring with them to change the decision.
An official’s ruling late in the game, when Nembhard was deemed to have been fouled before making a layup with 1:27 remaining, did not assist the Zags’ cause. Even though Nembhard hit both of his free throws, it was only enough to cut Arkansas’ advantage to 66-62, leaving Gonzaga down by two points.
As it is with the Golden State Warriors, the rims of the Chase Center weren’t as nice to Arkansas and Gonzaga as they are to the other regulars in the building, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and the rest of the Golden State Warriors. Many 3-pointers clanked against the rims, and many runners were rimmed off them for most of the night. In the end, neither side was able to make free throws with anything approaching consistency.
Gonzaga found itself in a familiar situation at halftime, behind 32-29, as it had done many times before in this tournament. The Gonzaga women’s basketball team trailed 16th-seeded Georgia State by just four points halfway through the second half before winning by a landslide. Additionally, they trailed Memphis by 12 points early in the second half before returning to win by a single point.
Gonzaga’s most efficient offence went almost four minutes without scoring in the first half, allowing Arkansas to rebound from a 27-19 lead, a gap from which the Zags were unable to regain their rhythm. The inability to hit 3-pointers consistently has been a contributing factor. After shooting 43.8 percent from 3-point range during the regular season, Chet Holmgren hit only 2 of 16 3-point attempts in Gonzaga’s five tournament games. Julius Strawther, who came into the tournament shooting 39.6 percent on 3-point attempts, hit his sole 3-point attempt of the tournament on Thursday and concluded the tournament with a record of 1 for 14.
In spite of the fact that his shooting touch did not immediately return in the second half (he went scoreless in the first half), Holmgren had an impact on the game by virtue of his length, gobbling up rebounds and fouling shots at the basket and beyond the 3-point line. However, after he was whistled for his second foul with 8:00 remaining in the first half, he was forced to sit out until halftime. Gonzaga’s advantage, which was 22-17 when he was whistled for a foul while attempting to grab an offensive rebound, was quickly squandered.