GLENDALE, Ariz. - It isn't easy to make Przemek Karnowski a household name, but the Gonzaga Bulldogs are giving it a try this weekend at the NCAA Final Four.
Karnowski, a 7-foot-1, 300-pound center from Torun, Poland with cross-cropped hair and a full red beard, didn't lead Gonzaga in anything except drama Saturday in the Bulldogs' national semifinal win over South Carolina. If he looks like a throwback character from old-time professional wrestling, his game followed that kind of script as well.
During the course of a 77-73 win that wasn't decided until the last 2.2 seconds, Karnowski suffered a poke in the eye after having a shot blocked, needed to go to the locker room for treatment, and then returned in the second half, puffy and perturbed, to keep Gonzaga's interior defense solid against a slashing, athletic South Carolina team.
"I had blurry vision, a little bit shadow. I couldn't really open it. So I just went to the locker room," Karnowski said. "By the time we were going out from the halftime, it started feeling a little bit better. And throughout the whole second half it was getting better and better."
The Gamecocks had trailed by nine at the half as they shot poorly and resolved to take the ball back inside after the break, particularly as Karnowski and the Bulldogs collected fouls that put their advantage in jeopardy.
Gonzaga led by 14 midway through the second half, but when the fouls continued to pile up and the momentum switched to South Carolina, the lead didn't just dwindle, it disappeared as the Gamecocks completed a 16-0 run to take the lead.
Karnowski and Gonzaga are used to adversity, however, both on and off the court. The big center suffered through a back injury last season, developed a staph infection as a result, lost 60 pounds, and wasn't necessarily expected to return to the team.
"There was a very high probability that he was not going to play basketball again," coach Mark Few said. "I mean, he couldn't even get in or out of a car, or really walk. And then I was really worried about depression and things like that. Emotionally, he wasn't in a great place. Going from those dark days to right now, it literally is miraculous and I'm not using the term lightly."
Karnowski did recover after months of rehabilitation, and was the team's second-leading scorer this year and number one defender of the rim. His presence, along with that of 7-foot freshman Zach Collins, keeps opponents out of the paint, forces them into perimeter shots, and helps make the Bulldogs one of the best field-goal defense teams in the country.
That was certainly the case in the opening half Saturday, when South Carolina made just 37 percent of its shots but remained in striking range because Gonzaga was turning the ball over, not getting to the line, and not getting any easy points. In fact, the Bulldogs would win the game despite not getting a single fastbreak basket.
If it was not a good sign to see Karnowski blinking away, trying to clear the fuzz from his misting right eye, at least Gonzaga had Collins, who picked up the rim protection duties where Karnowski left off. Collins finished with 14 points, 13 rebounds, and 6 blocked shots, which is a career high in a brief career.
"My career high is seven," Karnowski said. "But six is still good."
This semifinal game marked the first trip to the Final Four for each school, with South Carolina previously dismissed as a step-child adjunct to the football program and Gonzaga as a sturdy representative of a so-so conference that usually didn't have the legs to go this far. The game was a compliment to both teams, and now Gonzaga is able to play for the highest prize of all.
"To be playing the last game of the year is crazy cool," Few said.
The players, a collection of former redshirts, international imports, and transfers, might have come in with a chip on their collective shoulders after being told all the reasons the Bulldogs either shouldn't have advanced this far, or wouldn't advance much farther.
"The journey we've been on has just been unreal, and we just never stopped believing and we've had the utmost confidence in ourselves the entire season long," said guard Nigel Williams-Goss, who led Gonzaga with 23 points. "And, you know, we just heard everything this year. We've heard the conference, we've heard we haven't played tight games, that we're not tough, we've heard everything. Again, to be 37-1 and playing the last game of the season, it's just a blessing, and I just couldn't be more happy to be playing with these guys."
Before the game, Collins, told Williams-Goss, his roommate, "I wouldn't want to be playing against me today." The same can be said for a lot of the Gonzaga players, including the big man who keeps the opposition away from the basket and comes back from a poke in the eye to climb the highest turnbuckle and body-slam his way around the paint despite four fouls and the weight of the biggest game of his life.
Przemek Karnowski isn't easy to say, but he's easy to like, and after Gonzaga survived a wild ride Saturday, so is the whole team.