Already having played two of the most iconic games in NCAA Tournament history against one another, Gonzaga and UCLA added yet another chapter to the two programs’ history of clashes in a thrilling 79–76 Bulldogs win. After rallying from 13 down at halftime to take a 10-point lead with under three minutes to go, Gonzaga surrendered the lead in the final seconds before Julian Strawther’s deep three sent the Bulldogs to the Elite Eight.
Longtime Villanova coach Jay Wright may have retired in the offseason, but his fingerprints were all over the game’s defining possession. The play Gonzaga drew up with its season the line was “Wright’s play”, Few said, the same design Villanova had used to get Kris Jenkins the open three he made to win the 2017 national championship. Hunter Sallis was to sprint the ball up the floor with Strawther trailing him, then pitch it back to the junior sharpshooter. In the huddle, the play was called for Strawther to catch and drive towards the rim.
I kind of just asked [Few], like, ‘Can I shoot it? If no one steps up on me do you want me to shoot it?’” Strawther said. “He was like, ‘absolutely.’”
The play worked perfectly according to plan. UCLA freshman guard Dylan Andrews dropped back attempting to disrupt Sallis, but in the process left Strawther wide open for a deep three. Without hesitation, and without getting 36-point scorer Drew Timme involved, the Las Vegas native elevated and swished the shot home in his hometown.
“We should have been tighter on Strawther. We were all game. We just weren’t on that play,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said.
Seventeen years to the day since UCLA stormed back late to shock Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 in a game most known for the tears shed by Bulldogs star Adam Morrison postgame, the game-ending sequences started looking eerily similar to the one 6,205 days ago. Gonzaga led 71–62 with 3:26 to go in 2006, 72–62 with 2:40 to go in 2023. Everything needed to go right for UCLA to get back into the game, and for several minutes it did. A pair of Jaime Jaquez Jr. three-point plays, a Gonzaga turnover and a pair of missed free throws by Timme set up the Amari Bailey three that gave the Bruins the lead with 12 seconds to go. After all the work Gonzaga had done to rally from a big halftime deficit (including holding UCLA to just three points in a near-10-minute stretch in the second half), the Bulldogs were suddenly on the verge of going home.
But then came the Gonzaga March magic, the same the Bulldogs had in the 2021 Final Four game with the Bruins won by Jalen Suggs’s banked-in buzzer-beater. Strawther enrolled at Gonzaga the same year that Suggs did and is still close friends with the Orlando Magic guard. While Strawther’s three was a more composed look than the last-gasp heave Suggs made at the buzzer, Strawther’s shot was yet another deep shot from near the halfcourt logo to bury the Bruins. And when the score went final, Strawther sprinted towards the media tables. For a second, it appeared he was prepared to jump up on the courtside media tables, just like Suggs did in Indianapolis nearly two years ago.
“It’s moments like that you can’t make up,” Strawther said. “Those are literally the moments you dream of.”
The main reason Gonzaga was even in position to win late was Timme, who added yet another monster performance to his already-impressive March portfolio. The senior, Gonzaga’s all-time leading scorer, feasted on a shorthanded UCLA frontcourt that was without starting big man Adem Bona. Timme scored 15 of Gonzaga’s first 19 points and 36 for the game, the most by any player in the tournament so far. He had loud buckets (like a physical finish through the chest of Kenneth Nwuba that induced quite the staredown on his way back on defense) and quiet ones, but UCLA had few answers no matter what defensive coverage it threw at him. He also helped lead the charge for what was an onslaught on the offensive glass in the second half: Gonzaga had 14 offensive rebounds in final 20 minutes, generating 18 second-chance points. That helped the Bulldogs charge back from a 46–33 halftime deficit, outscoring UCLA by 23 in the first 17:30 of the second half before chaos ensued down the stretch.
Now, the Bulldogs sit 40 minutes away from the Final Four in a season that for so long felt stuck in second gear. This is the same Gonzaga team that got blown out by Texas and Purdue in November, struggled more than usual with its early WCC foes and even took a shocking home loss to Loyola Marymount. But with Timme leading the charge and Strawther there with the shot of the tournament to date, Gonzaga picked itself up off the mat.
“We’re some tough S.O.B’s,” the ever-quotable Timme said. “We’ve been down and people have loved just to kick on us and everyone just tried, ‘Gonzaga stinks,’ this, that.
“We just got back up and kept fighting. We picked ourselves up. No one gave us a hand out. We had to get up ourselves. And I think that’s just a true testament of who we [have] become.”