Gonzaga beats Ohio State 90-84 for Sweet 16 return
Zach Norvell Jr. pulled up for 3-pointers, drove fearlessly to the rim and bulled his way into the trees to snare rebounds.
A spectator during Gonzaga's Final Four run a year ago, the confident, extroverted freshman could be the ticket for a return trip.
Norvell had 28 points, hit six 3-pointers and grabbed 12 rebounds, leading Gonzaga back into the Sweet 16 with a 90-84 victory over Ohio State in the West Region on Saturday night.
"I call him our spiritual leader; he gets us going every practice, even the ones they don't want to be at," said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, who brought back his celebratory headstand in the locker room. "He's just a fiery guy with some swag from Chicago and we need that."
A redshirt last season, Norvell averaged 12.3 points to help Gonzaga sweep the WCC regular-season and tournament titles.
The 6-foot-5 shooting guard has elevated his game on the sport's biggest stage, hitting a late tiebreaking 3-pointer against UNC-Greensboro in the opening round to help the Zags advance.
The player known as "Snacks" — all he wanted was candy and chocolate as a kid — made 6 of 11 from the arc against Ohio State to lead Gonzaga (32-4) into the Sweet 16 for the fourth straight season — two wins from a second straight Final Four.
"I always have confidence on the offensive end, but helping the guys on the boards was big," said Norvell, who shot 8 of 18 overall.
The Bulldogs jumped out to a big early lead, withstood a second-half Ohio State charge and made the big plays down the stretch to earn a spot in the West Region semifinals against the Xavier-Florida State winner in Los Angeles.
Rui Hachimura added 25 for Gonzaga.
The resilient-all-season Buckeyes (25-9) rallied from an abysmal start and an 11-point halftime deficit to take a brief second-half lead before Gonzaga went on an 11-0 run to snatch it back.
Keita Bates-Diop had 28 points and Kam Williams 19 for Ohio State.
"They are really good and could make another Final Four run," Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann.
Ohio State and Gonzaga met four months ago in the PK80 Invitational.
It did not go well for the Buckeyes.
The Zags shredded Ohio State's defense while shooting 59 percent and held the Buckeyes to 35 percent in an 86-59 thrashing.
The Buckeyes said they are a better team now. Their record reflects it, too: 25 wins, a second-place finish in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten Conference and a return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015.
The Zags looked a little rusty in their opening 68-64 win over UNC-Greensboro. They looked more like the team that blew out BYU in the WCC title game early against the Buckeyes.
Gonzaga scored the game's first 15 points while hitting six of nine shots and blocking two of Ohio State's. The Buckeyes had three of their first seven shots roll off the rim early and didn't score until Jae'Sean Tate hit a 3-pointer at 14:18
Ohio State righted itself on offense, but struggled to slow the zigging Zags, who made 18 of 31 shots to lead 44-33 at halftime.
"We weren't locked in on defense and just tried to stay calm," Bates-Diop said. "I'm proud of how we fought back."
The Buckeyes got even more shots to fall coming out of halftime and forced a rash of Gonzaga turnovers during a 12-2 run to go up 58-54.
Gonzaga answered with an 11-0 run, going up 73-67 on Hachimura's 3-pointer at the shot clock buzzer — a run that propelled them back to the Sweet 16.
Ohio State came up short of its first Sweet 16 since 2013, but the season could hardly be considered a failure. The Buckeyes were picked to finish 11th in the Big Ten in Holtmann's first season, but ended up second and won a game in the NCAA Tournament.
"Obviously, you'd like to see it end differently, but we've evolved as a program," Holtmann said. "This group really turned a corner and flipped a switch."
Gonzaga did not play particularly well in its opening NCAA Tournament game, but looks like it could make another Final Four run after getting past the Buckeyes.
While Norvell and Hachimura were handling most of the scoring duties, junior guard Josh Perkins was aptly running the offense. He had 10 points and eight assists, helping the Zags shoot 53 percent and make nine 3-pointers.
"Josh Perkins has put together two really, really solid games, kind of managing the throttle of our offense," Few said.
Gonzaga will face the Xavier-Florida State winner at the West Region semifinals in Los Angeles.