SANTA CLARA, Calif. — With under 15 seconds left and Santa Clara’s chances of winning its first game against Gonzaga since 2011 hanging in the balance, forward Adama Bal stood patiently at the free throw line as the junior from France looked to hit two free throws to tie the game at 76.

Nervous as could be, Bal shot his first free throw. The ball kissed the front of the rim before taking two swirls and rolling out. His facial expression quickly turned to disappointment.

The game looked to be in Gonzaga’s favor as Bal hit his second from the line and the Broncos fouled point guard Ryan Nembhard with under 12 seconds left in the game on the ensuing possession. With a 76-75 lead, all the Bulldogs needed was for Nembhard to hit his one-and-one and get one last stop to avoid being upset.

But Nembhard, an 83% free throw shooter, missed the front end of his one-and-one.

With no timeouts left, Bal got an outlet pass from Johnny O’Neil and went straight to the cup. No intentions of passing and with every intention of redeeming himself for his last miss free throw.

This time, Bal went straight to rack, leaned on his defender and finished a tough right-handed floater with contact in the lane.

Ball game.

The most impressive part of Santa Clara’s 77-76 win over No. 23 Gonzaga was not that they out-rebounded the Bulldogs by double digits or that the win gave the program its first 3-0 start in WCC play in 20 years or that it was the program’s first win over Gonzaga since 2011. At a school that has produced NBA players Jalen Williams and Brandin Podziemski in the last two years, the best part of Thursday’s win was that Santa Clara might have its next NBA prospect on its hands.

“I just felt like that was my moment,” Bal said about his game-winning and-1. “I couldn’t turn down the open lane.”

The energy was real for Santa Clara in the first half. In front of a packed crowd that included former Bronco and NBA Hall of Famer Steve Nash, the Broncos jumped on the Bulldogs early and it paid off.

Santa Clara took a 40-28 lead after Tyebree Bryan hit a 3-pointer which garnered an eruption of energy from the Santa Clara crowd. Though the Bulldogs closed the gap and went into halftime down 40-34, there was a sense around the arena that the Broncos weren’t going to give up the lead.

But Santa Clara’s hot shooting died down for most of the middle portion of the second half. Gonzaga took its first lead of the game when Braden Huff finished a tough layup to give the Bulldogs a 58-56 lead with 11 minutes left.

Even throughout Gonzaga’s run, it was Bal who kept the Broncos in it.

Bal scored 10 of his 17 points in the second half and was the primary defender on Anton Watson and Nolan Hickman down the stretch.

Once Nembhard hit a step back jumper to put Gonzaga up 76-72 with just over a minute ledt, the energy in the building was sapped. It is rare that Gonzaga gives up leads like this, especially in conference play.

But it was Bal’s heroics that eventually gave Santa Clara the win.

“It’s definitely a special game,” Bal said.

Much like his NBA predecessors, Bal has the athletic and shot-making ability that is looked for at the next level. He’s shown his capabilities to make shots from beyond the arc while also being a force inside.

The Broncos have had a reputation as of late for producing under the radar talent that can become good NBA players and Bal certainly has the potential to get there.

Santa Clara’s season has been up and down the whole season. The Broncos have wins over the likes of Oregon and Washington State, but also have bad losses to teams like Yale and San Jose State.

But with the win tonight, the Broncos have put themselves in a position to compete for a WCC title, something the program hasn’t won since 1993.

“I think it’s a special moment, but like we said earlier in the week our next game is in less than 48 hours,” said Santa Clara coach Herb Sendek who’s team plays Saint Mary’s on Saturday. “The season is still relatively young and so now the challenge for us will be to prepare, get ready and face another tremendous opponent.”

Photo courtesy of Santa Clara Athletics

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