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December 13, 2017

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Gonzaga’s run to Final Four fueled by two with Las Vegas ties

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Young Kwak / AP

Gonzaga forward Zach Collins defends Loyola Marymount forward Shamar Johnson in Spokane, Wash., Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017.

The Gonzaga basketball team’s run to its first Final Four has been special for the program’s loyal fans in Spokane, Wash. The same is true for a few invested supporters in Las Vegas.

That’s because Gonzaga’s breakthrough has been largely fueled by a pair of locals — former McDonald’s All-Americans Zach Collins and Nigel Williams-Goss — who have been key performers in the tournament run.

Williams-Goss led Findlay Prep to a pair of ESPN national championships and a 35-1 record in 2013. Now, the 6-foot-3 guard leads the Zags with 15.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game in the tournament.

“It’s a spectacular story,” said Todd Simon, who coached Williams-Goss at Findlay Prep. “Everyone in Las Vegas, that has pride in Vegas student-athletes, has to be elated for Nigel and them.”

Williams-Goss helped Gonzaga to a 36-1 record and was named one of the final five candidates for the Wooden Award, which is given to college basketball’s most outstanding player.

His spectacular season hasn’t surprised Simon, who is now the Southern Utah coach.

“He was such a rare young man in terms of his work ethic and his drive to becoming what he wanted to become,” Simon said. “He is a product of desire and hard work. His natural gifts, while he’s certainly talented, aren’t what carry him.”

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Gonzaga guard Nigel Williams-Goss (5) moves the ball down court after stealing it from South Dakota State forward Mike Daum, right, during the first half of a first-round men's college basketball in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 16, 2017, in Salt Lake City.

Williams-Goss was the first four-year player in Findlay Prep history.

“The duration that we were together certainly changes the dynamic,” Simon said. “Going through the trials and tribulations from coming in as a 14-year-old to see him blossom as a young man doing special things has been great.”

Despite being a freshman, the Bishop Gorman product Collins has shown no signs of backing down, especially in the tournament.

Gonzaga got off to a slow start in its first tournament game, but Collins came off the bench to rack up 10 points, six rebounds and three blocks in a win against South Dakota State. He followed that up with a 14-point, five-rebound and four-block game in the second round against Northwestern.

“I don’t know if he gets nervous because he’s had so many big games in his life,” said Zach Collins' father, Mike, who is also an assistant coach at Bishop Gorman. “I think he’s taken it pretty well.”

Gonzaga is a 6.5-point betting favorite Saturday against South Carolina. A win would get them a date in the national championship Monday against the winner of the other semifinal between North Carolina and Oregon.

A couple of players with Las Vegas ties could be what the Gonzaga needs to win the title.

“I keep having people tell me to relax and enjoy the moment but it’s hard,” Mike Collins said. “As a coach and a trainer you can’t help but hang on every foul call, missed shot or missed assignment. I’m trying to take it in and lose myself in the moment but it’s hard. Sometimes being a dad is way harder than being a coach.”

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