Gonzaga, erennial championship contender, again stands between UConn and the Final Four.

Gonzaga, erennial championship contender, again stands between UConn and the Final Four.

LAS VEGAS – Once upon a time, the UConn men were hurtling toward the Final Four and Gonzaga stood in the way.

Okay, make that twice upon a time. The Huskies, who had to get by Gonzaga 67-62 to make the program’s first Final Four in 1999, has to play the Bulldogs from Spokane, Wash., again in the West Regional Final on Saturday night at 8:49 p.m.

“It was just a magical, whirlwind run,” said Mark Few, an assistant coach at Gonzaga in 1999, before taking over the program the next season. “We had never won a game in the NCAA Tournament, let alone three of them. We’d never done press conferences, never had police escorts, very rarely had ever been on national television. It’s the start of the entire run, and everybody knows the story, enrollment’s gone from 2,500 to over 8,000, all kinds of new buildings, arenas.”

The long span indicates the durability of the Gonzaga program. It was no one-year wonder and has been in 25 of the last 28 NCAA Tournaments. The Bulldogs were beaten twice in the championship games of 2017 and ’21, and have been stopped six times in the Elite Eight.

Since UConn’s victory on March 20, 1999, the schools have split four games, the most recent a Gonzaga win in the Bahamas in 2015.

If there is any vulnerability in this year’s Gonzaga, it has rarely showed itself. The Bulldogs (31-5) lost to Texas, Purdue, Baylor, Loyola Marymount and St. Mary’s during the season, but came back to beat St. Mary’s twice later on to capture another West Coast Conference championship.

“They have three things,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said before losing to Gonzaga in a Sweet 16 thriller following UConn’s win on Thursday night. “Coaching, plus, plus; Drew Timme; and shooting. How is that for you? And not just shooting from one guy. They’ve got multiple shooters, a great, great go-to player that has over 100 assists, very rare for a big guy.”

Dom Amore: UConn men’s basketball stands at the Final Four threshold. Now, Dan Hurley can finally get a good night’s sleep.

Timme, the 6-foot-10, 235-pound center, will be a lot for even UConn, with its post combo of Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan, to contain. Timme is averaging 21.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists, the pivotal player in Few’s inside-outside offensive style. He led the charge as Gonzaga came back from 13 to beat UCLA, scoring 36 points with 13 rebounds.

What UConn will find out Saturday: Does this Gonzaga team have something the others didn’t?

“Before every season, (winning the first championship) is always our ultimate goal at Gonzaga,” Julian Strawther said. “We had some rough patches this year, but at the same time we did an amazing job of just bouncing back and fighting through adversity. I think we can hang our hats on that ability to fight through adversity and be resilient throughout the season, and in March Madness that’s a great quality and a great trait to have. It’s already showed up twice in our run so far. Hopefully we can continue this run and be the first team to cut down the nets.”

Strawther, who hit the crucial 3-pointer to beat UCLA, is hitting 42.1 percent from that range. Anton Watson, Rasir Bolton and Nolan Hickman are the other starters, as Few has used the same starting lineup in 35 of 36 games. That consistency is a big part of the reason Gonzaga, like UConn, is gelled and playing its best basketball right now.

“We’ve been in some pretty dire situations this year and done a great job of sticking with it and finding a way,” Few said. “We’ve had No.1 ranked defenses, great size, unbelievable skill and speed on the offensive end. These guys just have this kind of winning DNA, and figure out what it takes to win even when the analytics don’t really back it up at the end of the game.”

The ‘Zags have been outrebounding opponents by a large clip, including UCLA, 50-26.
Gonzaga, on a 12-game winning streak, entered the West as the No. 3 seed and beat Grand Canyon by 12, then survived close games: three-point wins over TCU and UCLA, as UConn has won its three games by an average margin of 21 points.

“I think they’re playing probably better than anybody in the tournament right now,” Few said. “I’ve got to see them several times. They’ve just done a fabulous job of roster building. The pieces they have fit really, really well.”