SALT LAKE CITY — It was every top seed’s nightmare.
Gonzaga ran into a No. 16 seed that wasn’t playing like one, a crowd itching for an upset, and the very real prospect of making history in a most embarrassing way.
Somehow, the Bulldogs maneuvered their way out of that mess Thursday with a 64-58 win over Southern University, but not before they provided plenty of fodder for all those who wondered if that small school from the small conference really belonged at the top of the West Region of the NCAA Tournament.
‘‘The more I watched film on them, the more I thought, ‘This could be a real grinder,’ ’’ coach Mark Few said of the Jaguars, champions of the Southwestern Athletic Conference. ‘‘They don’t give you many easy opportunities. They’re very patient on offense.’’
Gonzaga’s win wasn’t safely in hand until the final buzzer sounded. No. 1 seeds improved to 113-0 since the tournament field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
Led by Derick Beltran’s 21 points, Southern (23-10) made life hard on the West Coast Conference champions from beginning to end, blocking eight shots, making 10 3-pointers, harassing star player Kelly Olynyk, and never letting the Bulldogs out of striking range.
Olynyk scored 17 of his 21 points in the second half to help the Bulldogs (32-2) advance to Saturday’s game against Wichita State.
But there was no celebration. Just a big sigh of relief.
Though Olynyk was the force that kept Gonzaga ahead through the second half, it was a pair of 3-pointers — one by Gary Bell Jr., the next by Kevin Pangos — that gave the Bulldogs their small cushion after Southern tied things at 56 with 3:45 left.
Bell’s three made it 59-56 after Beltran hit a 14-footer on the baseline to close a 15-4 Southern run and tie the game.
Beltran answered with two free throws, but Gonzaga responded, working the ball to Pangos, whose 3-pointer made it a 4-point game.
Yondarius Johnson and Malcolm Miller both had open looks on the next possession for Southern, but neither could convert. The Jaguars did almost everything right in this game, but missed five open shots down the stretch that could have put them over the top.
Pangos (16 points) made two free throws with 14.3 seconds left to seal the game. Only then did the Gonzaga cheering section rile up and the rest of the crowd, pulling for the underdog, settle down.