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Jerry Sullivan: Zags survive the opener, as usual

BOISE, Idaho – Gonzaga coach Mark Few said he felt fortunate, and it was true enough. The defending NCAA runners-up ran into a determined foe in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, a UNC-Greensboro squad that missed all 13 of its 3-pointers in the first half and battled back to take a two-point lead with 1:49 to play.

But the Zags persevered Thursday afternoon at Taco Bell Arena. They were the more poised team in the frantic final 100 seconds, making a couple of huge shots and two timely defensive stops to beat the Spartans, 68-64, and advance to the second round of the West Region on Saturday against Ohio State.

Maybe Gonzaga was fortunate, but good fortune has a way of following the Zags around in the Big Dance. They're in the NCAAs for the 20th straight year, and this is the 10th straight time they've survived their first game, tied with Kansas for the longest active streak in the nation. The last time they went out early, in 2008, some kid named Steph Curry dropped 40 points on them.

It's all about surviving the opening round of the NCAA tourney, the most exciting two days on the sports calendar. I was looking forward to the Boise subregional, which had four games with distinct upset possibilites: Two 4-13 matchups (including UB-Arizona) and a couple of always-dangerous 5-12 matchups.

Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann no doubt shared Few's sentiments. His Buckeyes survived a similar upset scare Thursday afternoon before pulling away from a tie with South Dakota State in the final minutes for an 81-73 victory over the Jackrabbits.

When you see two games like these – not to mention Loyola's thriller over Miami – you gain an even greater appreciation for what Gonzaga has accomplished under Few over the last decade. It doesn't take much — a missed shot, a bad call or a hot shooting day by a mid-major star – to send you packing in a hurry.

Few's most remarkable achievement is taking a nominal mid-major, out of the West Coast Conference, and transforming it into a major program, one that challenges for the national title every year and gets the sort of prominent TV exposure that teams like Canisius, UB and St. Bonaventure can only dream of.

Gonzaga is 31-4. A year ago, they went 37-2, suffering a narrow loss to North Carolina in the national championship game. Few is 534-117 in 19 seasons. Do the math. That's 28 wins a year for 19 years. UB and Bona entered their Thursday night NCAA games with a school-record 26 wins apiece.

Few, whose .820 career winning percentage is the best of any active Division I men's coach, was asked if winning a first-round game becomes easier when you've done it so often, and what he told his players when they fell behind UNCG late.

"No, it doesn't get any easier," Few said. "These first-round games are hard, they're really hard. I think people get a little misled when they see the seed numbers up there. That's a real good team we were fortunate to beat. They have a good defensive plan that just never quite lets you get flow.

"We were able to get flow there at times in the second half," Few said. "But the only thing I kept telling our guys was 'Stay with it. Stay with it. Stay with it.' "

It's not easy, to be sure. But big-game experience comes in handy in late-game pressure situations in an NCAA tourney. Greensboro, which was making its first appearance in 17 years, seemed unsure of itself down the stretch.

Demetrius Troy threw the ball away on a lob. Francis Alonso, their star Spanish guard, forced a shot with the game tied, 64-all. Alonso bit on a fake and Zach Norvell Jr., who was 2 for 11 to that point, nailed a 3-pointer to give Gonzaga a 67-64 lead.

On the ensuing possession after a timeout, Alonso was called for an offensive foul trying to come around a screen on a set play. Coach Wes Miller took the blame for changing the original play to one that Gonzaga had evidently scouted, putting Alonso in a tough position.

"We didn't execute as well as we wanted to in the last minute and a half," Miller said. "I think we'll always think about that last minute or so and think 'What if?'"

I imagine Miller will be up at night wondering what might have happened if his team had shot better in the first half. The Spartans were 0 for 13 from 3-point range and 3 of 8 from the foul line in a ghastly opening half. Miller said they were pleased to be down by only eight, but it wound up costing them.

You have to feel for these underdog teams, who often fight bravely and fall short in the end. Winning a single game in the NCAA tourney would mean the world. UNCG is 0-3 all-time. South Dakota State has been here five times in seven years, always as a double-digit seed, and never won a game.

The rich get richer in college hoops, as we well know. The fun is when one of the giants gets toppled by a school with lesser athletes and fewer financial resources. It's a heartless exercise, made worst by the selection committee's genuflecting to the power leagues.

The little schools have to envy the big powers, wishing for that one magical, elusive moment that never seems to come. Even more so, they envy Gonzaga, which used to be one of those plucky little schools and became one of the big boys. It's hard to think of them as a mid-major anymore.

At tournament time, Gonzaga acts like one of the privileged elite. When they're on the verge of an upset, they find a way to send Cinderella home.

"Things were all over the place," said junior Josh Perkins, who made the tying shot with 56 seconds left. "But I looked at coach and said, 'We got this.' He looked at me and said the same thing: 'We trust you and we trust in each other'. I'm just glad to be up here with this guy, and we're not done yet."

At this stage of the Dance, the Zags seldom are.

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