The Zags did what No. 1-seeded teams do, so UCLA figured it would be next.
Heading into Friday night, UCLA had played as well as anybody in NCAA tournament. The Zags tried to be the antidote. Instead, it was the opposite. The Bruins still beat the Zags 73-62 to advance to the championship game against unbeaten North Carolina (33-0).
The Zags (31-2) played great. The game was never in doubt from the opening seconds, when Saint Mary’s had its bad shot blocked. Gonzaga came out shooting 60 percent from the field, but against a UCLA zone that did not give up easy looks and allowed the Zags to use their speed and personnel to frustrate their opponent.
The Pac-12 champs (23-10) did not have the same number of opportunities against Gonzaga but were much more aggressive. They went 11 for 14 from three-point range and struggled to make shots against the Zags’ zone, which made finding openings especially difficult, but their share of the night was impressive.
UCLA’s lineup featured seven players in double figures, and despite missing four players with injuries it shot 63 percent from the field, tied a tournament record for free-throw attempts, and won while getting 14 assists.
Gonzaga did what teams usually do: Well executed, harder than anyone can guard. The Zags made 10 3-pointers and had 19 assists on 23 baskets. The only people who saw the three-pointers go up off the glass and the drives to the basket were the Zags.
Led by five 3-pointers and a game-high 19 points from Nate Kratch, 15 of which came from the free-throw line, Gonzaga had its best shooting performance of the season. The 54.8-percent shooting by the Zags from three might have helped decide the game, after it had been even for much of the first half.
Gonzaga came into the game on a mission. The Zags had not had the joy they wanted all year.
Gonzaga had an opportunity to win a national championship three years ago but fell at the buzzer in Memphis. UCLA and North Carolina lost in the Final Four that year, as did Villanova. If the Zags had won it all last time, it would have been the greatest upset in the history of the tournament. They know they must win it all this time.
They did it with depth, precision, size and athleticism.