Kragthorpe: Southern not content with just causing discomfort
No. 16 Southern comes oh-so-close to making history.
Published: March 21, 2013 07:52PM
Updated: March 22, 2013 07:47AM
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Kurt Kragthorpe

This is not the story that Southern University’s basketball players want written about them.

They’re not interested in receiving credit for threatening No. 1 seed Gonzaga, not consoled by being within one point of a powerful opponent with two minutes to play Thursday, not happy about joining the list of teams that almost staged the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history.

Actually, that attitude explains exactly why the Jaguars could do what they did, playing their way into position to knock off Gonzaga before settling for a 64-58 defeat at EnergySolutions Arena.

“Obviously, we came here to win a ballgame,” said Southern coach Roman Banks, “not play a ballgame.”

The natural response is to question the validity of Gonzaga’s No. 1 seed. Between now and Saturday’s game vs. Wichita State, everybody will wonder what this performance says about the Bulldogs’ vulnerability.

But that stuff can wait. This is Southern’s moment, whether the players want favorable reviews or not. “No one likes a loser,” said guard Jameel Grace, “and unfortunately that’s what we were today.”

Wrong and wrong. If Salt Lake City is supposedly Gonzaga country, with a son of John Stockton in the playing rotation and other local ties, you never would have known that Thursday. The afternoon-session crowd of 12,621 largely adopted the Jaguars in hopes of contributing to history.

The atmosphere surprised Gonzaga coach Mark Few, but he understood. “Everybody was so moved by their effort and their resilience and their confidence,” he said.

Just when these matchups are dismissed as meaningless exercises, along comes a team that makes 10 3-pointers, blocks eight shots and takes Gonzaga to the finish. The Jaguars were “cultivated to expect to win,” in Banks’ words, and they damn near did. Imagine if they’d shot better than 39 percent from the field.

Southern lost 117-72 at Gonzaga in 2010-11 before making an improbable rise in Banks’ two seasons. And then Jaguars nearly pulled off the impossible.

Since the tournament’s expansion to 64 teams, No. 1 seeds are now 114-0 against No. 16 seeds, which tells just part of the story. Only 12 games have been decided by single digits. Thursday’s game was the closest such contest in 17 years.

And Gonzaga’s winning by six required 3-pointers from Gary Bell Jr. and Kevin Pangos in the last four minutes and defensive stops on Southern’s last three possessions.

Trailing by 11 points midway through the second half, the Jaguars rallied to tie the game on Derrick Beltran’s jump shot with 3:47 remaining, and later cut the lead to one after Beltran’s two free throws.

To its credit, Gonzaga responded. “My guys played well when there wasn’t a whole lot going their way,” Few said.

So the players from the historically black college in Louisiana were left to dwell on what they could have done better, as opposed to what they’d accomplished.

“We go through everything that a big-time school goes through; we knew we had a good chance of winning and we came up short,” said forward Javan Mitchell. “It’s just a bad feeling.”

In any case, 20 years after No. 15 seed Santa Clara upset No. 2 Arizona at the Huntsman Center, this game almost topped that one. Like any coach, Banks will remember how “in this tournament, two or three possessions can cost you a ballgame.”

For the rest of us, the lasting image will be how close the Jaguars came to making themselves unforgettable.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribkurt