PORTLAND, Ore. -- Josh Heytvelt and Gonzaga already knew they could win artistically. Now the Zags know they can win an alley fight, too.
Rugged Akron was shoving its way to a huge upset over stylish Gonzaga, up by six in the second half. The Bulldogs, loaded with what they feel is their most talented team in years, seemed set up for a third-straight first-round flop.
"They came out throwing blows and had us rattled," said Heytvelt. "Then we snapped out of it."
Heytvelt snapped back most decisively. The senior scored 22 points -- seven during a late game-breaking run -- and the Bulldogs rallied to get past the determined but ultimately overmatched Zips 77-64 on Thursday night in the South Regional.
The Zags are in their 11th consecutive NCAA tournament but had lost in the first round of the last two.
"To get this first one is a really big deal," said senior Jeremy Pargo, whose soaring right-handed slam punctuated the 19th win in 20 games for Gonzaga (27-5). "The last two years, we didn't do this."
Heytvelt simply sighed and said, "Oh, it was a weight off the chest."
The Zags can only hope their next foe doesn't have collars as blue as Akron's.
"Well, hey, it feels good to win and move on. That's what this tournament is about," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "That was a grinder."
Nate Linhart scored 13 points in the first half, but had no field goals after halftime for the Zips (23-13), who won the Mid-American Conference tournament to get in to its first NCAA tournament in 23 years.
"We were right there," said Akron coach Keith Dambrot, who thought his team tired late. "We played with good passion and desire, but we just had a hard time when it really mattered. And you could tell they've been there before."
Getting zapped in the first round by the Zips seemed possible for Gonzaga with 14:59 left. A 3-pointer from Akron's Chris McKnight -- who with his teammate and brother Brett grew up playing prison ball at his father's workplace in Lancaster, Ohio -- then a dunk by Mike Bardo and another 3 from Anthony Hitchens gave the Zips a 49-43 lead.
They seemed poised for the tournament's first huge upset, and the Zips' first NCAA win since Akron moved to Division I in 1980.
"I'm not going to lie. I was kind of flustered," said Gonzaga's Austin Daye who scored 10 points, three below his average, in 29 minutes.
"We definitely took care of business at the end."
And how. Gonzaga scored the next seven points, a dunk by Heytvelt, a layup by the rushed Matt Bouldin and a 3-pointer from Steven Gray.
Suddenly, the Zags had their first lead of the half, 50-49, and Gonzaga's previously stoic players were exhorting the crowd with arms raised skyward.
As those rabid fans in red from Spokane, Wash., kept roaring, Gonzaga's decisive run kept rolling. Bouldin's no-look pass found Heytvelt for a two-handed dunk and Michah Downs scored on an easy layup. Heytvelt stepped back for a deep 3-pointer, which he punctuated with a pirouette and three fingers raised in each hand at center court. Then Downs, who had 15 points, drained another 3.
Downs pounded he's chest to celebrate Gonzaga leading 67-53 with five minutes left, and the Zags were on their way to the second round.
"We lost some discipline for two or three minutes on defense," said Akron's Steve McNees, who was 0-for-9 from the field. "That's ball game against a team like that."
Akron came in 19th in the nation in scoring defense, yielding less than 60 points per game. Dambrot had said that rugged play must intensify to stay with Gonzaga.
Bulldogs flew into cheerleaders and banged off the floor, as a freewheeling Gonzaga team that had topped has topped 80 points 22 times this season was reduced to grinding through a relative wrestling match of half-court sets.
At one point in the second half, Gonzaga freshman Demetri Goodson and Akron's Brett McKnight swung each other around after a held-ball whistle, each refusing to let go of the ball as teammates and officials intervened.
A 3-pointer by Linhart three steps behind the arc equaled Akron's biggest lead late in the first half, before Pargo's driving layup made it 38-35 Zips at halftime.
The tournament's first huge upset was brewing. That feeling -- emphasized by Akron's kangaroo mascot "Zippy" stomping around in a shirt that demanded "Fear the 'Roo!" -- lingered for the first 10 minutes of the second half.
But then Gonzaga started jumping out to challenge Linhart, who went 0-for-4 in the second half. And supreme athleticism finally outlasted steely attitude.
"We persevered," Pargo said.