HOUSTON -- The more teams change, the longer they stay and play.
At least that was the case in the NCAA tournament's South Region on Friday, when the Duke Blue Devils and the Gonzaga Bulldogs powered through to face each other in Sunday's Elite Eight in part by straying from their strengths to win.
At this point in the tournament, the teams that can make an adjustment, that can win in more than one way, are the best suited to advance.
Duke's 63-57 victory over Utah was played at a pace that favored the Utes. Duke's points per possession slipped to .98 and the Utes secured 18 offensive rebounds, not exactly a formula for a Duke win. Yet guard Quinn Cook said the Blue Devils never wavered.
"We have other pieces," Cook said. "Other guys have to step up. Justise [Winslow], Tyus [Jones] and Amile [Jefferson] played his butt off, not just scoring but being a presence on defense and getting some rebounds."
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Utah did a masterful defensive job on center Jahlil Okafor. He tied a season low with just six points thanks to constantly being under the pressure of a Utes double-team. Okafor, who averages 18 points for the Blue Devils, handled it well in the first half, then had three of his four turnovers in the second.
"I don't know if we were nervous or the fact that we didn't recognize things quickly made us nervous, but we weren't ourselves early," Krzyzewski said. "I'm proud of my guys because during the game, they changed."
When it was clear Okafor wasn't going to be the reliable scorer he's been all season, freshman forward Winslow stepped to the forefront. The Houston native turned 19 on Thursday and celebrated both his homecoming and his birthday with his best performance of the tournament.
Winslow scored a game-high 21 points -- just two shy of his season best -- and essentially obliterated Utah's scouting report in the process. Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said Winslow's pattern had been to maybe hit one 3-pointer in a game. The Utes were willing to allow him to shoot from deep as opposed to pressing him and risk a drive to the basket. They didn't count on Winslow making three of four from 3-point range.
"It got us, there's no doubt about it," Krystkowiak said. "I thought we did a terrific job on their two leading scorers, but that's what makes Duke, you know, Duke. They had some other players rise to the occasion and make plays."
After back-to-back losses to the NC State Wolfpack and Miami Hurricanes in January, no one envisioned Duke's defense would be the reason it could advance in a game like this. But Krzyzewski praised his team's defensive effort in holding the Pac-12's top 3-point shooting team to just 4-of-16 and limiting the Utes to 35 percent shooting overall.
In the first South Region semifinal, UCLA, and NRG Stadium, forced Gonzaga to adjust its offensive game plan. The Zags average 41 percent from 3-point range, which is also where leading scorer Kyle Wiltjer makes his living. As a stretch-4, Wiltjer gets easy points going to the basket because teams have to respect his deep shooting range.
But this was the same venue in which the Butler Bulldogs shot 19 percent in the 2011 national title game. The Zags and Bruins combined to make just six of 32 shots from behind the arc, three each.
Wiltjer scored just eight points on 4-of-12 shooting from the field, but he did grab 10 rebounds. UCLA's Kevon Looney kept Wiltjer from getting many open looks, and even when he did, the stadium backdrop seemingly took care of the rest.
The Zags' 74-62 win was powered by going inside to center Przemek Karnowski. The 7-foot-1 junior scored a team-high 18 points, which nearly doubled his output of 20 from the first two tournament games combined.
Reserve 6-foot-10 forward Domantas Sabonis also chipped in 12 points.
"I thought we did a much better job on [Wiltjer] in this game than we did at home in Pauley," said UCLA coach Steve Alford, noting Wiltjer scored 24 when the teams met in December. "Sabonis and Karnowski, they're a load. They got so many weapons, you're not going to shut all of them down. Those two got away from us a little bit there in the second half."
Now, Gonzaga and Duke sit on the verge of a Final Four. For the Bulldogs, it would be the program's first-ever appearance. For Duke, it would be its first trip since winning it all in 2010.