Gonzaga doesn't miss beat without Morrison
NEW YORK -- The mustache is gone. But Gonzaga still has plenty of bite.
Forward Josh Heytvelt and guard Derek Raivio sent that message loud and clear Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden as the No. 23 Bulldogs held off No. 2 North Carolina 82-74 in the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off.
"A lot of people doubted Gonzaga now that Adam [Morrison] is gone," said sophomore guard Jeremy Pargo, who scored 16 points, "we've just been preparing for a moment like this and we took advantage of it today."
Despite being consistently among the upper echelon of college hoops for the better part of the last decade, the Zags (5-0) still find themselves having to reprove they're legit every time a marquee player leaves. They left no doubt against the Heels by accomplishing something they never did on Morrison's or any other past star's watch. UNC (3-1) became the highest-ranked opponent Gonzaga's ever defeated. The Bulldogs face Butler, 56-44 winners over Tennessee, for the Tip-Off title Friday at 7 p.m.
"Well, it was a great, great night for our team and our program," said Gonzaga coach Mark Few. "I mean, any time you can beat a program and a team like Carolina, that's a great thing."
The Tar Heels didn't have an answer for the 6'11" Heytvelt (19 points, 8 rebounds, 3 blocks), a former top-50 recruit from just outside Spokane who missed almost all of last season to injuries. He and the other Zags bigs stifled UNC's Tyler Hansbrough throughout the game, making the player of the year favorite an almost non-factor. Rotating, fronting and doubling "Pyscho T" -- as Hansbrough's teammates and fans have come to call him -- Gonzaga got into plenty of frontcourt foul trouble, but also frustrated Hansbrough (22.3 ppg entering Wednesday) and forced the Heels' young team to look elsewhere for points.
NEW YORK -- Butler coach Todd Lickliter and forward Brian Ligon had just finished taking questions and downplaying their upcoming matchup with the Gonzaga-North Carolina winner. Then the news conference ended and Lickliter revealed his true feelings as he pushed himself up from his seat at the microphone.
"Can you let us relax tonight and not bring up North Carolina or Gonzaga?" Lickliter joked after his Bulldogs dispatched No. 21 Tennessee 56-44 on Wednesday night in the first semifinal of the NIT Season Tip-Off at Madison Square Garden.
If Butler's run in the NIT is any indication, though, the Bulldogs (5-0) won't be intimidated. They've beaten Notre Dame, Indiana and now Tennessee to get to the championship game Friday night against Gonzaga, which upset No. 2 North Carolina 82-74 in the second semifinal.
After falling into a 21-8 first-half hole, Butler rode stiff defense and Volunteers mistakes to big runs in a sloppy game by both teams. Tennessee (4-1) shot just 25 percent from the floor, while Butler managed 34 percent.
The Vols' biggest problem was they couldn't hold on to the ball, turning it over 23 times (they're now averaging 21.2 a game).
"We're a young basketball team, and we really played like it tonight," Volunteers coach Bruce Pearl said. "And we've got a roomful of guys playing different roles than they did last year. Dane Bradshaw, JaJuan Smith, Ryan Childress and Jordan Howell are all at different positions, plus the new guys."
Tennessee starts freshmen Duke Crews and Ramar Smith, and classmates Wayne Chism, Josh Tabb and Marques Johnson all play significant minutes. The Vols play North Carolina in the consolation game Friday afternoon.
A.J. Graves once again led the way for Butler, which did not make the NCAA Tournament last year, with 15 points. He's scored 63 points in three Tip-Off games. Wingman Julian Betko also had 15 points and accounted for four of the Bulldogs' 12 steals.
-- Mike Ogle
"He just didn't even attack," said Heytvelt. "Just the fact that we played such good defense on him and got him thinking that he couldn't go to work on us in the first half slowed him down. I think he started shying away in the second half."
On one possession in the second half as Gonzaga built a 16-point lead, Heytvelt swatted one Hansbrough attempt into the stands and celebrated by pumping his fists by his side, screaming and gritting his teeth. After inbounding, the Tar Heels went right back to their big man only to have Heytvelt force him into a traveling violation in the paint. Hansbrough had just five field-goal attempts -- tied for fewest of his career -- on his way to 9 points.
"We did a very poor job of giving him the basketball, and he probably did the least effective job he's maybe ever done as far as moving without the basketball," said UNC coach Roy Williams. "I mean, one time we bounced it to him but the pass bounced right between his legs."
Raivio (21 points, 5-of-7 on threes, 8 rebounds, 4 assists) and backcourt mate Jeremy Pargo (16 points) hit big shot after big shot as the Zags fought out of an early 14-2 hole and built a double-digit lead. And while most were expecting a big show out of the Heels' studded freshman class of Brandan Wright, Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson, only Wright delivered by leading all players with 21 points and 13 rebounds. Instead, Gonzaga freshman guard Matt Bouldin, shaggy hair flopping in line with school tradition, impressed with his playmaking ability, 14 points and 6 assists in 31 minutes off the bench.
In the second half the Tar Heels turned up their intensity and defensive pressure to get within two points on a Hansbrough dunk with 4:17 to go but never got any closer, at times looking unsure where to go with the ball in crunch time with their horse struggling.
"[Assistant] coach [Joe] Holladay asked me if I thought I was going so slow [teaching], holding people back trying to wait for the newcomers to get caught up, and I probably have been," Williams said. "At the end it's hard to make a comeback when you can't even get guys to run the right stinking play. I'm not trying to sugar coat. I did a terrible job with this team tonight and probably already this season."
That doesn't have Williams too worried though. The last time he coached in the preseason NIT in 2002 his Kansas squad lost to UNC and Florida. The Jayhawks went on to the national title game that year while the Heels missed the Tourney for the second straight year, culminating in Matt Doherty's exit.
But on this night Gonzaga improved to 8-1 all-time against the ACC, having won all eight in a row with seven of those against ranked foes. And the Bulldogs also provided their former mustached folk hero with some bragging rights in the Charlotte Bobcats locker room.
Few can return that call and deliver the same message to Morrison his team did to the country Wednesday.
The Zags aren't going anywhere. They're here to stay.
"I think they go in expecting to win these games," Few said. "I mean, that's what you want and that's why they are here and that's why they came to Gonzaga."
Message delivered, loud and clear.
Mike Ogle is a regular contributor to ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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