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Originally published March 21, 2013 at 8:39 PM | Page modified March 22, 2013 at 12:07 AM

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Zags are now a No. 1 seed in the Relief Region

Gonzaga made it tough on its nervous fans Thursday, struggling to a 64-58 victory over No. 16 seed Southern.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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SALT LAKE CITY — You can stop biting your lower lip now, Gonzaga fans. You can open your eyes and stop clasping your hands in prayer, too. And please, please exhale because you turned so blue you resembled an unnerved Smurf.

The scare is over. The Zags didn't make dubious history. As a newbie No. 1 seed, they didn't become burdened with the dishonor of losing to a No. 16 for the first time in NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament history.

This game wasn't about what happened. It was about what didn't happen. Gonzaga survived, barely, with a 64-58 non-loss over Southern on Thursday afternoon at EnergySolutions Arena. To celebrate, everyone doused themselves in relief.

Gonzaga coach Mark Few began his postgame remarks by saying "Well, hey," and then he threw in the verbal filler "I mean," and later he offered the ultimate it-was-one-of-those-games assessment by reckoning, "My guys played well when there wasn't a whole lot going their way."

Translation: Whew.

If you're Gonzaga, there's not much else to take from this game other than "Whew." Sure, it would've been ideal for the Zags to make a grand opening statement about their virtue as a top seed and the No. 1 team in the nation. But a close call to open NCAA tournament play doesn't necessarily foretell anything worrisome. It happens more often than you think to heavy favorites. And, yes, it even happens to No. 1 seeds from time to time.

This game was more about Southern's fearless, spirited performance than Gonzaga's shortcomings. The Jaguars did provide Wichita State and other potential GU opponents with some film of Gonzaga struggling, but crazy as it sounds, most teams don't have the athleticism to attack the Zags the way the Jags did. The Zags will face better teams, for certain, but others might play Gonzaga more conservatively than the all-out, nothing-to-lose style Southern used.

Faced with the difficult task of defending the balanced Bulldogs, Southern coach Roman Banks picked his poison and made it clear. He instructed his players to take away the post and prevent the Zags from executing their favorite high-low, two-man game between center Kelly Olynyk and forward Elias Harris. As a result, Olynyk and Harris combined to shoot just 4 of 13 in the first half.

Asked how the Jags were so effective, Harris said: "Take three or four guys and put them in the paint. I looked around sometimes and didn't see nobody. All I saw was blue Southern jerseys."

On offense, the Jaguars noticed the Zags were similarly focused on shutting down the middle, so they launched jumpers without remorse. They made 10 of 23 three-pointers. Half of their shots were from behind the arc. Guard Derick Beltran (21 points) hit a couple of NBA-caliber shots while fading with a defender in his face.

The Jaguars led on three occasions in the first half, and after falling behind by 11 in the second half, they came back and tied the game at 54 with 4:08 remaining.

"We came here to win a ballgame, not to play a ballgame," Banks said.

Said Southern point guard Jameel Grace: "Coming into the game, we thought we were going to make history."

History succumbed to Olynyk, however. And at the end, Gonzaga's guards made clutch plays. Olynyk scored 17 of his 21 points in the second half and grabbed 10 rebounds. Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. scored the final 10 points for the Zags. Pangos had seven of those points, including a step-back three-pointer to put Gonzaga up 62-58 with 1:54 left.

"We're glad we got this tough game out of the way first," Bell said. "We got that out of the way."

This non-loss came with some things that could be valuable if the Zags make a deep run. They had to finish a game with the crowd against them, rooting for the historic upset. They had to grind. And they were reminded that they're not as good as some say they are. Or, given their many critics, maybe that should be: They're not as good as some say they aren't.

Anyway, they felt the pressure of being a No. 1 seed on the ropes and reacted with great composure. They learned something about themselves. They learned it the hard way, but they learned.

"For one, we got a wake-up call," Harris said. "It's like, 'OK, OK, everybody's here to play. Let's not underestimate anyone.' That's a good reminder. But you're not out there for style points. People are wondering, 'Do they really deserve a No. 1 seed?' They can ask that if they want. But winning is winning. We'll keep our heads high and come out fighting the next game."

Next game, they might not want to take the opponent's best punch, however. The chin can only handle so much, not to mention the nerves of the faithful.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com

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