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Culture of winning finally delivers Gonzaga hoops a trip to Final Four

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Culture isn’t created through a singular entity. It can be born from numerous parts and emotions and personalities, not always nice and tidy and traditional.

But when built with a like mindset and goal, it can deliver the most historic and memorable results.

Gonzaga, the powerful college basketball program from the not-so-mighty West Coast Conference, has finally knocked down what had been an impenetrable fortress impeding its universal acceptance as part of the game’s elite.

Spokane is no longer known as just the birthplace of Father’s Day and Gonzaga no longer the nation’s best program not to get it done in March.

The Zags have reached a Final Four.

A top seed in the West Region of the NCAA Tournament and one bad second-half stretch of play from an undefeated record, Gonzaga proved too big and too good and too motivated for tournament darling and 11th seed Xavier on Saturday, blitzing the Musketeers 83-59 before 17,011 at SAP Center.

“I’ve been here 28 years,” said Mark Few, the past 18 as head coach. “My first year on staff, we won four Division I games. I mean, this wasn’t possible. And each year, we got better. And then we got good. And then really good.

“This was a culture win, a culture statement, and I couldn’t be prouder.”

For all the great Gonzaga teams, the other No. 1 seed and the 2s and 3s and those that made Sweet 16s and another Elite Eight and the litany of players who were part of what is now 19 straight NCAA berths, this is the best version of all.

It’s hardly the most conventional one.

Sitting atop a dais after delivering Gonzaga to the national semifinals in Phoenix, where the Zags will meet the winner of Sunday’s East Regional final between Florida and South Carolina, were Few and four starters.

Nigel Williams-Goss is a junior and Findlay Prep product who transferred from Washington; Jordan Mathews is a fifth-year transfer from Cal; Jonathan Williams is a junior transfer from Missouri; Przemek Karnowski is a fifth-year senior from Poland who couldn’t stand and get out of bed in December 2015 before being granted an extra year of eligibility following back surgery.

He also has more wins than any player in college history, more than Christian Laettner or Ron Baker or Fred VanVleet or Shane Battier or anyone.

“We had a plan for ourselves,” said Williams-Goss, an all-West Region selection who finished with 23 points, eight rebounds and four assists. “We believed from day one, from the moment we all stepped on campus this year, that we could go to Phoenix. We didn’t shy away from setting that goal. We knew it wouldn’t be easy, but that if we bought into the system and listened to (Few), we could do it.”

Xavier could have continued its hot play, the kind that allowed it to knock out Maryland, Florida State and Arizona, and still not won Saturday. But the Musketeers weren’t close to the form that advanced them this far, and much of that had to do with Gonzaga’s defense.

“It has won us all four games in this tournament thus far,” Few said.

The lead reached 15 midway through the second half and never again dipped below, Xavier held to just 36 percent shooting and its star, junior wing Trevon Bluiett, to 10 points, 15 below his tournament average.

Seconds before it was over, before Gonzaga became the first WCC team to reach a Final Four since San Francisco in 1957 and the first from the West (Oregon would join it later Saturday by beating Kansas) to make it since 2008, before Williams-Goss and Zach Collins of Bishop Gorman High were officially Las Vegas prep products to be part of such history, Few walked up and down his team’s bench with this message:

The Zags might as well go to Phoenix and win the whole darn thing.

“All these stories we have mean something,” Few said. “Guys coming here and giving up roles and minutes and shots when they could have stayed other places, leaving the comfort of that, because they wanted to win. They wanted to be part of something special. They believed in us.

“Take away five or seven minutes of not very good basketball against BYU, and we’re 37-0 right now. I don’t expect any different at the (Final Four). We’ll have a great time tonight. I’ll get up and go to church, and our practices will be as good as they’ve ever been all season. Our guys don’t know any different.”

It’s a culture thing.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “Seat and Ed” on Fox Sports 1340 from 2 to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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