DENVER (AP) — That “11” on the bracket is only a number. The name that goes with it — “Gonzaga” — means a whole lot more.
The Bulldogs have become too good to be considered an underdog anymore, even if the seeding may say so.
Marquise Carter scored a career-high 24 points, lifting Gonzaga to an 86-71 victory over sixth-seeded St. John’s on Thursday night to cap a stellar day for the double-digit seeds at the Pepsi Center in the NCAA tournament.
The Bulldogs (25-9) were the third lower seed to spring an upset in the Mile High City, joining No. 12 Richmond and No. 13 Morehead State.
Gonzaga used to be everybody’s favorite mid-major, but the Bulldogs have grown into tournament regulars, a perennial Top 25 team. They looked the part against St. John’s of the Big East and move on to face third-seeded BYU, the only team that survived a scare on this floor. The Jimmer Fredette-led Cougars knocked off Wofford, 74-66.
“I think people know we’re a good program so it doesn’t surprise them anymore,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, whose team has won 10 straight games. “We certainly didn’t consider ourselves an underdog in this game.
“When this matchup popped up, we were excited to play. We’re playing the best basketball we have all year.”
Gonzaga used its size and strength to muscle around the Red Storm (21-12), who were back in the tournament for the first time since 2002. Gonzaga outrebounded St. John’s by a 43-20 margin.
“Their size was able to dominate at the rim and in the lane at both ends of the floor,” said Steve Lavin, who’s in his first season in charge of a program brought to power decades ago by Lou Carnesecca. “That was a concern coming in and it played itself out.
“We haven’t been outrebounded like that all year.”
It was a rare early round loss for Lavin. He’s now 10-2 in the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament, a mark he mostly compiled during his days at UCLA.
The Red Storm weren’t the same team without top rebounder and team leader D.J. Kennedy, who tore his right ACL during the Big East tournament. He sat on the bench in his warmups, even lacing up his shoes, hoping maybe he could somehow will his way into the game.
Instead, Kennedy hopped up off the bench on occasion — as best as he could, anyway — to try to spark his teammates.
The fans who made the trek from the Big Apple showed their support for the senior swingman, wearing red “Do it for D.J.” T-shirts.
Dwight Hardy led the St. John’s with 26 points, while Justin Brownlee added 14. Sean Evans, who filled in for Kennedy, had four points and six rebounds.
The business of basketball had been booming again for St. John’s under Lavin. The team was looking for its first win on this stage since 2000, when they beat Northern Arizona in the opening round.
Back then, just like now, St. John’s was bounced from the tournament by Gonzaga, back when the Bulldogs were relative unknowns.
But they’re hardly strangers to the tournament now, making their 13th straight appearance.
They utilized their vast experience, taking their first lead on a 3-pointer by Elias Harris at the 15:14 mark of the first half and never really looking back.
Seven-footer Robert Sacre was a force down low for Gonzaga, scoring nine points and grabbing nine rebounds. Steven Gray added 16 and Harris finished with 15.
“Coming into it, we knew they were a tough team,” said Carter, who hit 9 of 11 free throws, all in the second half. “We knew with determination and good defense that we would come through with the win.”
The Zags jumped out to a 15-point lead in the first half by pounding the ball inside and taking advantage of its superior size. The Bulldogs were quite a bit taller at every spot on the court, not really a surprise since they feature nine players 6-foot-5 or taller.
St. John’s began to cut into the lead late in the opening half, with Brownlee hitting a shot at the buzzer to make it a 43-32 game at intermission.
Gonzaga has hit its stride late in the season, winning the West Coast Conference tournament title game against Saint Mary’s to secure an automatic bid.
The Bulldogs will play the Cougars on Saturday, providing an early preview of the WCC showdowns between the two schools in the years to come. BYU will soon bolt the Mountain West Conference in basketball for the WCC.
“I think we’ll match up pretty good,” Carter said. “Just looking forward to being able to play the next game.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)