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NCAA tournament: Rui Hachimura leads top-seeded Gonzaga to West regional final

NCAA tournament: Rui Hachimura leads top-seeded Gonzaga to West regional final
Gonzaga forward Brandon Clarke fights for control of the ball against Florida State's guard M.J. Walker in the second half. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

It was the same teams, the same round of the NCAA tournament and the same West Regional.

That was about the extent of the similarities.

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Gonzaga was best in show Thursday evening at the Honda Center, one year after Florida State’s junkyard-dog defense had left the Bulldogs’ season on the scrap heap.

There’s no telling where Gonzaga might be headed after doing most of the disrupting this time on the way to a 72-58 victory in a regional semifinal. The top-seeded Bulldogs are within one win of their second trip to the Final Four in three years.

Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura, whose toughness and shooting touch provided essential ingredients that were missing last year when these teams met at Staples Center, dribbled out the game’s final seconds. He placed the ball on the court before embracing teammate Brandon Clarke as they commenced the celebration in front of a cheering section that included school legend John Stockton.

The Bulldogs’ defense deserved much of the credit after holding the fourth-seeded Seminoles to 39.3% shooting and an abysmal three of 20 three-pointers (15%).

“Just trying to be physical with them and trying to not let them bully us, pretty much, kind of like what they did last year,” said Clarke, who logged 15 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks one year after watching the Bulldogs lose to the Seminoles from his sofa while sitting out as a transfer from San Jose State.

Clarke’s layup off an alley-oop pass from Josh Perkins capped a 7-0 spurt by Gonzaga that essentially put the game out of reach after the Seminoles had made things uncomfortably taut, pulling to within four points with just over four minutes to play.

Florida State's forward Mfiondo Kabrngele gets hemmed in by the Gonzaga's defense in the first half.
Florida State's forward Mfiondo Kabrngele gets hemmed in by the Gonzaga's defense in the first half. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Gonzaga’s Zach Norvell Jr., who suffered through an abysmal shooting performance against the Seminoles last season, started the push with a three-pointer.

“Confidence and belief in situations like that,” Norvell said of persevering when the game got tight. “You practice hard every day, you go hard in those situations every day and when you get in them you don’t want the situations to be too big.”

Gonzaga (33-2) will play third-seeded Texas Tech, a 63-44 winner over second-seeded Michigan in Thursday’s second game, in the regional final on Saturday.

It was a doubly disappointing ending for the Seminoles (29-8), who were trying to win for absent forward Phil Cofer as a tribute to his recently deceased father. Florida State was also without reserve guard P.J. Savoy for the game’s final 12½ minutes after he suffered a shoulder injury.

Seminoles guard Trent Forrest was nearly unstoppable with 20 points on eight-for-11 shooting, but no one else on his team reached double figures in scoring.

Gonzaga had a lot to do with it. When Forrest looked for a teammate while holding the ball early in the first half, he found only the flailing arms of Gonzaga defenders and threw the ball into the backcourt for a turnover.

It was a theme as the Seminoles committed nine of their 14 turnovers in the first half while allowing the Bulldogs to build leads as large as 14 points.

Balance wasn’t an issue for Gonzaga. Hachimura scored 17 points and Norvell and Perkins added 14 each to go with Clarke’s big showing across the board.

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It didn’t help Florida State that Christ Koumadje, its skyscraping center, spent most of the first half trying to keep his 7-foot-4 frame comfortable on the bench after picking up two fouls in less than 2½ minutes.

His value became evident when he returned to start the second half and scored the Seminoles’ first two baskets. But he picked up two more fouls and had to depart once more with 14:19 left in the game. He finished with eight points in only 11 minutes.

Florida State might have provided its biggest nuisance a day before the game.

Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton prompted a verbal eye roll from Gonzaga counterpart Mark Few by comparing the veteran coach to John Wooden, saying no one else on the on the West Coast had achieved at Few’s level since Wooden was piling up national championships at UCLA.

“That might be the greatest exaggeration of all time,” Few said. “Nobody can hold up to John Wooden.”

There was some validity to Hamilton’s point given that Few has become the gold standard among coaches in the West, advancing to a regional final for the third time in five years. He said his success was largely a function of his players showing each other what it meant to play for his team.

“It’s winning, man,” Few said. “It’s the culture of winning. And, oh, yeah, the older guys teach the younger guys. This is what you do at Gonzaga. You win.”

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