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Hometown hero Julian Strawther lives dream in Gonzaga victory

Updated March 23, 2023 - 11:04 pm

Julian Strawther was having a night to forget on the offensive end in his first NCAA Tournament game in his hometown.

Then he created a moment that will be remembered forever in the West Regional semifinals.

Strawther had made just four of his first 14 shots from the field when he calmly trailed the ball down the court, caught a toss back from Hunter Sallis and drained a long 3-pointer with his back foot on the March Madness logo at midcourt with 7.2 seconds remaining. The shot sent Gonzaga to the Elite Eight with a wild 79-76 win Thursday over UCLA at T-Mobile Arena.

“A moment like that you can’t even make up,” the Liberty High School alum said. “For it to happen here in Vegas is just the cherry on top.”

”This is my city!” Strawther repeatedly screamed during the celebration.

Third-seeded Gonzaga (31-5) advances to play No. 4 Connecticut (28-8), an 88-65 winner over Arkansas in the first game Thursday, in the Elite Eight at 5:49 p.m. Saturday at T-Mobile Arena.

The dramatics erased a bit of a late meltdown by the Bulldogs. Gonzaga held No. 2 seed UCLA (31-6) without a field goal for more than 11:20 in the second half to open a 10-point lead with 2:40 left only to fall behind on Amari Bailey’s 3-pointer with 14 seconds remaining.

Strawther’s shot came on a play that looked an awful lot like the one made famous by Villanova’s Kris Jenkins in the 2016 national championship game victory over North Carolina.

But when Gonzaga coach Mark Few drew it up in the huddle, he did it with the idea of Strawther taking the ball at the top of the key and driving to the rim. Strawther asked if he had the green light to pull up and shoot it if the defense backed off, and Few gave him the thumbs-up.

It proved to be a good idea. Strawther’s shot swished right through the net and had both sides thinking not so much of the Villanova shot, but of the 30-foot game winner by Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs that beat UCLA in a 2021 Final Four game.

“UCLA has the heart of a champion,” Few said. “Fortunately we were able to hold them off. Julian hit a big shot, just like his buddy Jalen did a few years ago.”

After the shot, Strawther ripped the ball from the clutches of Tyger Campbell on the other end and made one of two free throws with 1.1 seconds on the clock. Campbell’s desperation heave hit the backboard and the rim before falling to the court and triggering a celebration as Strawther’s teammates encircled the hero.

It wasn’t long before Strawther found his family in the front row and embraced his father, Lee.

“You dream about that all the time from the time he’s little,” Lee Strawther said. “In the driveway, at the gym. He’s practiced that too many times to count. It’s every player’s dream to be in that situation.

“Then on a tough shooting night for him, he doesn’t care. He stepped up and took the shot. That’s a testament to him. He has confidence.”

Strawther finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds. He had just two points in the first half as the Bulldogs struggled to find their game.

It was Drew Timme who kept them afloat. He looked every bit the part of the best player in the nation with 36 points and 13 rebounds, including 19 points on 9-for-15 shooting in the first half.

“It took a great player in Timme, a 35-foot shot and a tough whistle to send us home,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said.

Gonzaga trailed 46-33 at the break because it had committed nine turnovers to just one for UCLA while allowing the Bruins to shoot 51 percent from the field.

The Bulldogs chipped away and trailed 59-52 with 12:34 remaining when they dug their heels in and clamped down on the defensive end. Gonzaga forced UCLA to miss its next 11 shots from the field and held the Bruins without a field goal until Jaime Jaquez Jr. hit a layup and was fouled with 1:14 to play.

Gonzaga still led by six at the time and didn’t expect to need Strawther’s heroics.

“That was one shining moment,” he said. “That’s the best way to describe it.”

Contact Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AdamHillLVRJ on Twitter.

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