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Southern discomfort: No. 16 Jags come up just short against Zags

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

SALT LAKE CITY -- We've been teased with the dream outcome once more.

College basketball's last, biggest result that's still not come to be, the thing the NCAA tournament still seeks and has eluded us all. The 16 beating the 1. We came close here, as close as we have in 17 years, when Purdue only beat Western Carolina by two. Inside the gripping comforts of Energy Solutions Arena for about 38 minutes there was detectable angst; the first and last 60 seconds of the game saw the Southern Jaguars at their worst, or maybe it's better say say their furthest from victory.

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The top-seeded Bulldogs were anything but convincing, anything but a top seed; proof Thursday came in name only. Southern was as hard-nosed as you'd expect one of the best defensive teams in this tournament to be. It was as confident as the bloat of an arena's cheers lifts many underdogs once the game enters that bewitching stage of doubt.

But too many shots fell late for the Jags. The final was 64-58 and a nation was treated to one of the best games from the opening day of the Round of 64.

Oh, but we really let our minds go there for a minute. If you watched at home you did. Those in the stands did, even Gonzaga's faithful, which didn't want to entertain the possibility, were forced to. After Derick Beltran's 3 with 5:20 to go cut Gonzaga's lead to 54-52, that's when everyone perked or stood up. Then Beltran hit a a gorgeous step-away 15-footer near the baseline with 3:47 left.

What were you feeling when the game was there for you guys?

"In the moment I didn't really think about it because we was trying to win," Beltran said of his 3 that cut it to two and brought the place to its peak volume. "No shot, no possession was bigger than than next."

The game was tied at 56.

"For a moment, yeah, I did feel the enthusiasm of the crowd," Southern coach Roman Banks said.

The arena was ... aroused. An odd aura, definitely. Tension mixed with excitement mixed with two wills tugging in opposite ways. About 35 percent of those in the stands were decked in Bulldogs gear. Everyone else above floor level did what they should have done: rooted for the as-of-now-still-impossible outcome.

The lead never came.

A missed 3 by Southern guard Malcolm Miller with 1:23 to go gave Gonzaga the ball with a 62-58 edge. The pressure release on the valve came there for Mark Few's team. Deflation in the crowd was evident, and Southern didn't have its urgency or swagger anymore.

The Zags had it.

That missed 3 from Miller that rattled about before falling out came on a play that was called for the first time all night. Banks called "All Strong" because he thought he could catch Gonzaga off-guard. He did. He set up the play for Miller. The player was free. If it goes in, it's a one-point game.

"If we make that one, you don't know what can happen," Banks said. "Because at times it felt like they had more than five guys out there."

Kelly Olynyk led the Bulldogs with 21 points; he was matched by Beltran in that department. If Southern can take anything from the game aside from pride over grabbing a nation's attention for two hours, it's that it made Gonzaga look worse than it has in any game up to this point this season.

Banks' eyes were glassy as he left the locker room and headed to the postgame presser. He thanked the NCAA for its invitation, thanked Salt Lake for how his team was treated. He and his players were somber. There wasn't shock. There was a damn-we-almost-had-it attitude with the Jags players.

"For them to pour it out tonight is exemplary of what they've been doing all season long," Banks said.

A team that played in front of the biggest crowd it's faced this year -- or probably will in any year until it makes its next NCAA tournament -- treated the game like it was just two years ago, when Southern was drawing 300 people to its gym and winning four games. That's what it was before Banks took over. Walk-ons getting big minutes and NCAA penalties pinning down Southern from postseason eligibility.

"It's not a good feeling," senior guard Jameel Grace said. "Because we worked so hard all year long. It's … just don't feel good."

That's what could've made this victory, had it happened, even more phenomenonal. Most of the players on this team played as a unit for the first time this season.

The Jaguars' locker room wasn't despondent. It wasn't angry or tearful. It was just quiet. I walked in there, about 18 eyes hit me as I turned the corner and it was piercing. Suddenly I felt, or at least thought I did, what they were. But I wasn't. It was internal empathy. Then, uncertainty. What can I ask of any of these kids right now.

I spoke to a few. They didn't have much to say aside from what you see about this post. Appreciation but regret. It's hard for the team to see achievement in a loss. But the SWAC and Southern was well-represented. For the players, pride will come with reflection. It's been 17 years since a No. 16 got this close to giving us the carrot that still dangles. That elusion has its value, too.

In the first half, after he'd finished up his media interviews, Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall happened to sit down beside me at the press table. He was there to scout the game. Well, scout Gonzaga. But on went the score, never reaching too big a gap. From 28-26 to 33-31 to 36-34 and 41-40. Marshall would jab my arm after every big Southern basket.

"No … it couldn't happen," Marshall said. "Could it? Couldn't happen."

It didn't. And still hasn't.

Gonzaga will play Saturday against No. 9 Wichita State in the Round of 32.

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