Houston, TX (SportsNetwork.com) - Powerhouses collide in the South Regional final of the NCAA Tournament Sunday when the second-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs take on the top-seeded Duke Blue Devils at Houston's NRG Stadium.
The winner advances to the Final Four and will play either Michigan State or Louisville.
Gonzaga is making its second-ever trip to the Elite Eight, and the first since the 1999 campaign. The Bulldogs earned their spot by defeating UCLA on Friday, 74-62, for the second time this season. Head coach Mark Few is making his first trip to the regional finals. Few took over the Bulldogs the season after they last made it to the Elite Eight.
Duke was able to escape Utah in the Sweet 16 on Friday by earning a hard- fought 63-57 victory to advance. The Blue Devils are appearing in their 20th Elite Eight in program history, and the 14th under head coach Mike Krzyzewski - the most regional final appearances by any active head coach. The last time Duke reached the Final Four was back in 2010, when the Blue Devils made it to the national championship.
Gonzaga and Duke have only met twice on the basketball court. Duke took both decisions, which were played within the last 10 years. The Blue Devils won a 61-54 contest back in 2006, and then beat the Bulldogs by a commanding 76-41 margin in 2009.
Gonzaga and UCLA were separated by seven points at halftime in Friday's clash, but a 6-0 run to start the second half gave the Bulldogs a bit of a cushion. Przemek Karnowski led the way offensively with 18 points and nine rebounds, while Byron Wesley chipped in 14 points. Domantas Sabonis came off the bench to contribute 12 points with eight boards before he fouled out, and Kevin Pangos tallied 10 points. Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer narrowly missed a double-double with eight points and 10 rebounds in the win. It was a rough shooting night for UCLA, which made 38.8 percent of its field goal attempts in the loss.
Gonzaga has perennially been regarded as a team that can win within its conference, but nowhere else. The Bulldogs have proved the naysayers wrong this year with dominant performances on both ends of the court. The Zags offensively are led by Wiltjer's 16.8 ppg, and are helped by three more double-digit point averages from Pangos, Karnowski and Wesley. The Zags are netting 79.4 ppg on nation's best 52.2 percent shooting percentage. Gonzaga heads into its biggest contest of the season allowing opponents to net 61.5 ppg on a mere 39.1 percent shooting. Gonzaga is outrebounding its opponents by nearly eight boards per outing thanks to help from big men Karnowski, Sabonis and Wiltjer.
Duke was able to stifle Utah's first Sweet 16 appearance since the 2005 season thanks to a huge contribution from freshman Justise Winslow. The youngster notched a double-double with 21 points and 10 rebounds, connecting on 8-of-13 shooting from the floor. Utah keyed in on ACC Player of the Year Jahlil Okafor, who netted only six points and grabbed eight rebounds in the win. Tyus Jones (15) and Quinn Cook (11) each added a double-digit scoring figure in the win for Duke, which limited the Utes to 35 percent shooting. Duke also won the battle at the free-throw line, making 20-of-26 from the charity stripe, while Utah connected on 11-of-15 from the line.
If any team can keep pace with the Bulldogs, it is Duke. The Blue Devils come into the Elite Eight netting 79.9 ppg on 50.5 percent shooting, headed by Okafor's 17.7 ppg. The favorite to be the top overall pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, Okafor will have to deal with Karnowski, Sabonis and Wiltjer underneath. All three Zags stand at 6-foot-10 or greater. Cook (15.7 ppg), Winslow (12.4 ppg) and Jones (11.5 ppg) will try to give the Gonzaga guards fits with their supreme athleticism. Krzyzewski certainly has the edge over Few in terms of experience at this level. The Duke coach has 85 career tournament victories - 20 more than greats Dean Smith and Roy Williams.