BOISE, Idaho – The UNCG men’s basketball team was 1:49 away from a fitting for a Cinderella slipper and NCAA tournament lore but the 13-seeded Spartans suffered a heart-breaking 68-64 loss to fourth-seeded Gonzaga on Thursday afternoon in the first round of the tournament in Boise, Idaho, at the Taco Bell Arena. The loss ends the Spartans’ record-setting season at 27-8 overall after making their third NCAA appearance in program history and the first since 2001.
“I don’t think I could be prouder of my group,” head coach Wes Miller said. “We were 0-for-13 in the first half from 3 and 3-for-8 from the free-throw line, but it was still a three-possession game. I think that says a lot about the toughness we’ve had all year, the grit that we’ve had all year. Things started to open up for us in the second half offensively and Demetrius and Fran got us going. We had the lead late in the game and had two chances to make stops but were unable to come up with them. There are some things we can learn from and build on but I could not be prouder of my team.”
The Spartans trailed by as many 12 points in the second half and found itself behind by a 57-48 margin with 8:59 remaining after a Josh Perkins 3-pointer for the Bulldogs. UNCG showed its true colors as it posted a 10-1 run tying the game at 58-58 with 4:55 left in the game. Junior guard Demetrius Troy started the run with a basket in the lane before Francis Alonso scored four straight points.
Senior forward Jordy Kuiper pulled UNCG within one at 57-56 with a jumper before Troy tied the game at 60-60 scoring again off a drive in the paint. The teams traded baskets until Kuiper tipped in an offensive rebound with 1:49 remaining, giving the Spartans a 64-62 lead.
Gonzaga (31-4) missed the front end of a one-and-one free-throw attempt, giving the ball back to the Spartans. UNCG drew up a play to get sophomore forward James Dickey a lob at the rim but he was unable to corral the ball, giving the Bulldogs another chance. Perkins nailed a jumper with 56 seconds remaining, tying the game at 64-64.
After Alonso missed a shot on a drive, Zach Norvell buried a 3-pointer for Gonzaga, giving it a 67-64 lead with 20.8 seconds remaining. The Spartans ran a play for Alonso, but he was whistled for an offensive foul, giving Gonzaga back the ball with 17.6 remaining. Again, Gonzaga missed free throws and UNCG had life, but senior forward Marvin Smith’s potential game-tying 3-pointer went down, around and out, basically sealing the Bulldogs’ win with 7.6 seconds remaining.
“We have worked really hard to try and build a culture on a day-to-day basis in our program,” Miller said. “Our seniors from last year, Diante Baldwin and R.J. White, were probably really proud watching them play today in the NCAA tournament. And next year, Jordy Kuiper, Marvin Smith, Garrett Collins and Justin Jordan – our seniors this year – will be really proud of our program if we can take a step forward and keep growing as a program. It has been a privilege to coach this team and I am excited about the future of our program.”
Troy continued his stellar play in the postseason, recording his fourth straight double-figure scoring game, tying for a team high with 16 points in 28 minutes. He connected on 8-of-11 from the field, all two-point field goals, while adding three assists. Alonso scored 16 points as well, 11 in the second half, as he finished 6-of-17 from the field but just 1-of-7 from 3-point land.
The Spartans finished the afternoon shooting 41.8 percent (28-of-67) from the field but were just 3-of-22 (13.6 percent) from long range in the loss. UNCG won the rebounding battle against one of the top teams in the country on the glass, out-rebounding Gonzaga by a 41-37 margin. Dickey was the catalyst, posting a double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds, while Kuiper added seven points and nine rebounds in the loss.
Gonzaga was limited to just 42.4 percent (25-of-59) shooting from the field and just 21.7 percent (5-of-23) from distance against the nation’s sixth-ranked scoring defense. Jonathan Williams led the Bulldogs with 19 points and 13 rebounds, as he was 8-of-12 from the field but just 3-of-9 from the free-throw line. Perkins added 16 points while Norvell chipped in 15 points for Gonzaga.
The Spartans finish the season with a 27-8 overall record. The 27 wins are a program record, surpassing last season’s 25 wins while the eight losses are the fewest in a single season for UNCG. Additionally, the Spartans have now posted 52 wins in the last two years, the highest two-year total in program history and have appeared in the postseason for three straight years.