In March Madness, Gonzaga plays near-perfect 2nd half to dispatch Kansas 89-68

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few calls out to his players during the first half of a second-round college basketball game against Kansas in the NCAA Tournament in Salt Lake City, Saturday, March 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Isaac Hale)

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few calls out to his players during the first half of a second-round college basketball game against Kansas in the NCAA Tournament in Salt Lake City, Saturday, March 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Isaac Hale)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — And to think, some folks said they might not make it to March Madness.

The Gonzaga Bulldogs laughed that off as easily as they swatted away an exhausted Kansas team Saturday, rolling past the Jayhawks 89-68 to return to the Sweet 16 for the nation-leading ninth straight time.

Led by Anton Watson’s 21 points, fifth-seeded Gonzaga was nearly as good over the second half of this game as it has been over the second half of the season. The Zags scored 15 straight points early in the half to turn this one into a runaway on an afternoon when basically everyone in a navy jersey was a star.

They improved to 16-2 since Jan. 18, with the only two losses coming to Saint Mary’s, the team that beat Gonzaga for the West Coast Conference title but was dismissed from the tournament Friday night.

“Late December, it was looking like maybe it wasn’t going to happen,” said Mark Few, his hair still damp from the dousing he received in the postgame locker room. “But I’ll give credit. These guys stayed coachable. We figured it out.”

Once Few dries off, he and the Zags, who are in their 25th straight NCAA Tournament, will load up for their routine trip to the second weekend to play the winner of Sunday’s game between Purdue and Utah State.

The Zags (27-7) made their first five 3-pointers of the second half, not missing from long range until 1:30 remained and the game had long entered extended garbage time. They shot 60% from the floor and 53% from 3. Ben Gregg still managed to stand out — he went 6 for 6 and finished with 15 points and nine rebounds.

Big man Graham Ike also had 15 and nine, going toe to toe with KU’s Hunter Dickinson, who finished with a quiet 15 points.

Making all the Bulldogs look good was Ryan Nembhard, who blew off a rough shooting night (1 for 6) and finished with 12 assists to become the program’s career leader in that category.

“Ryan’s been at the highest level for the last eight weeks,” Few said. “He’s just got our throttle all the way down and he’s making great decisions.”

Kansas was gassed, facing an early start after an emotional, close victory over Samford late Thursday night. Coach Bill Self said he knew he was in trouble when he turned to his bench partway through the game, looking to make a substitution.

“There’s not many times where you take a guy out, he’s sitting through a three-minute timeout, I say, ‘Can you go back in?’ and he says ‘I need more time,’” Self said.

The tired legs played into a painfully familiar scene for fans of the fourth-seeded Jayhawks (23-11). They have struggled with depth, shooting, consistency and injuries; leading scorer Kevin McCullar Jr. (knee) was out for the tournament. During Gonzaga’s 15-0 run, the Jayhawks missed 10 straight shots.

Gonzaga eventually extended the run to 32-4; Kansas shot 2 for 23 during that stretch.

“It’s a formula for disaster when you can’t make shots and you can’t stop them,” said Kansas forward KJ Adams Jr., who finished with 10 points.

A few of those misses looked strangely ugly, including when Dickinson, who missed the Big 12 Tournament with a dislocated shoulder, grabbed a rebound under the bucket and looked poised for an easy bucket but could barely get the ball to the rim.

“Hunt gave us everything he had,” Self said. “But that was one tired dude out there today.”

For 22 minutes, at least, this game lived up to its billing — a rare showdown between much-adored power programs. There were eight lead changes. At one point late in the first half, the teams combined to make nine straight shots from the field, trading leads almost every time down.

Gonzaga kept it going. Kansas simply couldn’t.

The Zags won both their games in Salt Lake City by 21. The opener against McNeese might have been expected. That the second one was such a breeze, even against a flawed KU team, was a surprise. Nothing else about this team playing deep into March should be that shocking.

“We’ve just always impressed upon them, if we get in this thing, we know how to win in this thing,” Few said. “This is not a new thing for our program.”

ON THE SIDELINE

Lamar Simpson, the official who called the phantom foul that helped KU lock up its opening-night win over Samford, watched both games from press row as the alternate official.

HOME AWAY FROM HOME

The Zags improved to 10-3 lifetime in tournament games in Salt Lake City. Their next stop is Detroit, where they have never played a tournament game.

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness

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