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Why Gonzaga vs. Memphis felt like a Final Four game in the second round of March Madness

We might not get a better game than Memphis vs. Gonzaga for the rest of the men’s tournament.

Memphis v Gonzaga Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

The Gonzaga Bulldogs were named the No. 1 overall seed in the men’s NCAA tournament for the second straight year, but it sure didn’t feel like it when the rest of the West Region was revealed on Selection Sunday. If the Zags were going to get to the Final Four for the third time in five years, they’d have to have to navigate through a treacherous path featuring a capable opponent in every round. The West sure felt like the dreaded Region of Death.

Gonzaga’s run through the bracket faced its first serious challenge in round two against the Memphis Tigers. Memphis was no ordinary No. 8 seed. It was evident since the preseason that the Tigers had one of the most talented rosters in the country, but injuries and lineup choices threatened to derail their season midway through January. Eventually, the Tigers got healthy and tweaked the rotation enough to close the season with 12 wins in their last 14 games entering the tournament. They were legitimately one of the best teams in America by the numbers since Jan. 20.

Gonzaga needed this win to continue on its quest to win its first ever national championship. Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway wanted a program-defining win of his own by knocking off the top team in the country and advancing to the Sweet 16 in his first ever NCAA tournament appearance.

Gonzaga-Memphis had more hype than any game in the round of 32. It didn’t just meet the hype — it surpassed it.

Gonzaga’s thrilling 82-78 win put the Bulldogs into the second weekend for the seventh straight tournament. The game had the intensity and talent of a Final Four matchup with potential top-five NBA draft picks on both sides and a charged atmosphere inside Portland’s Moda Center. We may not get a better game all tournament long. Here’s what made Gonzaga-Memphis so good.

Gonzaga vs. Memphis was incredibly physical from the early going

Memphis came out trying to go at Gonzaga’s all-world defender Chet Holmgren. Holmgren is extremely skinny at 7-foot, 195 pounds, but if you’ve ever watched him play you know he’s one of the toughest rim protectors in America.

The Tigers tried to challenge him inside on several possessions within the first five minutes, and Holmgren mostly put a lid on the rim.

Gonzaga fed the ball to Timme on the other end, but he wasn’t able to establish deep enough post position to score in the first half. Regardless, Gonzaga’s size put Memphis’ best front court defenders in early foul trouble. Both Jalen Duren and DeAndre Williams sat long stretches of the game because Hardaway wanted to have them available for crunch time.

It was the same situation for Gonzaga: Holmgren sat the last six minutes of the first half after picking up his second half. Memphis promptly went on a run to take a 10-point lead into halftime. Holmgren didn’t have a great offensive game, which is a credit to Duren and the rest of the Tigers. Seeing the big boys inside go at it like this was such a treat. We just wish they weren’t mostly in foul trouble.

Drew Timme erupted in the second half

Timme was one of the best players in the country last season as Gonzaga started 31-0 before losing to Baylor in the national title. While Gonzaga lost three key starters from that team, they kept Timme, and that has been one of the biggest reasons they were so good again this year.

After a quiet first half, Timme came out aggressive out of the break, scoring 11 straight points to open the frame for Gonzaga. That included a play where he hit only his eighth three-pointer of the season, then continued to attack the Memphis bigs with rip through and post moves that kept pressure on the Tigers’ bigs. Watch his full scoring display in the second half below:

Timme is a character with a big personality, a fact he reminded us of after the final whistle during a hilarious postgame interview. College basketball is more fun with players like him.

Memphis did everything it could to push Gonzaga to the brink

All credit to Hardaway and Memphis for an incredible performance. The Tigers fully turned their season around just when there started to be speculation that perhaps Penny wasn’t the right man for the job. He found a way to maximize his team as Williams returned from injury and the point guard situation settled, and he had them playing their best against arguably the biggest bully in the sport.

Memphis didn’t get down all night. They just ran out of gas.

If I have any criticism of Memphis, it’s this: why not let Williams and Duren try to play through foul trouble instead of sitting them so long on the bench? Regardless, Memphis still nearly stole the game at the end. This game should prove that Hardaway is a big-time college coach.

It’s too bad Memphis didn’t pick it up a little sooner, because there’s no way they should have been seeing Gonzaga in round two. There’s no doubt they were better than a No. 9 seed.

Things won’t get any easier for Gonzaga with No. 4 seed Arkansas waiting next round, and then perhaps a potential meeting with either Texas Tech or Duke in the Elite Eight. We’ll worry about that later. For now, cheers to Gonzaga and Memphis for giving us one hell of a show.