En route back home – the Zags chartered last night and probably arrived in the early morning hours Pacific time – so we’ll put together the last day-after post of the season.
Gonzaga’s season ended in stunning fashion Saturday. The Bulldogs had climbed out of a 13-point deficit and had an 8-point lead in the second half and all of the momentum. Then Wichita State, which entered the game as a pedestrian 33-percent shooting team from 3-point land, made everything it looked at, including seven 3s in a row at one point.
The Shockers, getting contributions from unlikely sources – forward Jake White hadn’t made a 3 since Dec. 30th and was 2 of 25 from distance this season when he buried one to give WSU a 29-19 lead; Ron Baker, 31 percent on the season, went 4 of 6; Cleanthony Early, 30 percent on the season, made 4 of 7 – an sprinted past Gonzaga, turning a 7-point deficit into a 4-point lead in 3 minutes and 40 seconds.
That fast, GU’s season was over. The Bulldogs had bumped their heads again on the NCAA ceiling, which the Zags and their fans no doubt think should be higher than their exits in the round of 32 the last four seasons.
Read on for more.
--The outcome wasn’t as shocking as how it occurred. The Zags owned the boards, seemingly a key pre-game barometer against the rugged Shockers, 39-30. GU had 21 offensive boards and a 10-point edge in second-chance points, though it probably would been a 14-15 point differential if GU had cashed in from close range.
If you’d told me Gonzaga would win the glass, get the FT line 11 more times (it would have been a wider margin if not for a series of GU fouls late), and the big three of Kelly Olynyk (26), Kevin Pangos (19) and Elias Harris (12) would combine for 57 points, I’d have guessed Gonzaga wins 74-62.
It didn’t happen, and a primary reason is the Shockers never blinked, even down 58-51 with 6:30 remaining. Roughly at that point, WSU called a timeout and coach Gregg Marshall told his troops (paraphrasing here), ‘Hey, if you’d told me months ago we’d be down 7 with 7 to play against the No. 1 team in the country with a chance at the Sweet 16 would you have taken it? Of course you would have, now go finish the job.’
The contributions of Jake White, Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet (3.8 ppg), who went for 13 points and three assists and made a 3-point dagger with 1:25 left, made Gonzaga’s lead vanish in a hurry.
“They stepped up and made big shot after big shot,” coach Mark Few said, “especially after we dug ourselves not only back in the game but kind of started to take control of it. They deserve a ton of credit, it’s the first time in a while somebody shot 50 percent on us and to bang in 14 3s is pretty amazing.”
The Shockers kept firing and connecting from the perimeter and Gonzaga, for one of the rare times this season, struggled in the closing minutes.
The question, of course, is why were the shooters open?
“It was combination of things,” senior Mike Hart said. “They were obviously setting screens, maybe we weren’t doing a great job understanding it. You have to get out and get a hand up quicker. Give them credit, some of them were contested and they hit them, but a couple of defensive mistakes maybe got them going and you don’t want to get shooters going.”
Losing Gary Bell Jr., GU’s best perimeter defender, didn’t help. He didn’t play in the last 18 minutes due to a foot/ankle injury, but that alone doesn’t account for WSU’s late 3-point barrage.
“They were knocking down shots like crazy,” Pangos said. “I don’t know how many they made (informed by the media it was 14). Ridiculous, especially since they didn’t shoot well (2 of 20 vs. Pitt) in their first game. They caught fire.”
Of the final minutes, Pangos added: “I had some turnovers. We just didn’t execute the same way we have all season. I left a shooter, I’ll take some blame for it, but nobody is pointing fingers. We know we didn’t play our best basketball down the stretch. We could have been better, which is too bad because we’ve been so great all season.”
--What will bother the Zags the most, other than not taking advantage of an upset-laden West Region bracket, was that they didn’t play nearly to the level they’d reached with mind-numbing consistency in 33 pre-NCAA tournament games. That was evident Thursday in a grind-it-out win over Southern. Only for a few stretches Thursday and perhaps 15-20 minutes spanning both halves vs. Wichita State did Gonzaga resemble Gonzaga of the regular season.
The Zags’ defense, so good in the last half of the regular season, gave up 24 3s in two games. The Zags’ late-game execution saved them Thursday but abandoned them Saturday. They didn’t finish inside with nearly the efficiency they had most of the season.
GU’s three most dependable attributes – defense, crunch-time execution and the ability to dominate the paint – weren’t nearly as solid in the NCAAs.
Olynyk scored 26 points, but needed 22 field-goal attempts. His season high was 19 in the first meeting with Saint Mary’s. Olynyk, a 68-percent shooter, was 16 of 37 in two NCAA games. He was 0 of 4 on 3-pointers in the tournament.
Elias Harris struggled inside. He didn’t seem to have much spring in his legs and was rejected several times at the rim in both games. Harris, a 51-percent shooter, made 4 of 18 shots in two games.
--The other stat that heavily influenced the outcome was bench points. WSU 34, GU 7 (four of those coming in layups essentially conceded in the closing minute). That speaks to the aforementioned contributions from WSU’s unsung players, but it also reflected another GU strength (depth) that wasn’t on display in Salt Lake City.
Now, there weren’t as many minutes for the reserves – Olynyk played 38 minutes, Harris 35, Pangos 39 – but GU didn’t get a point from a backup until Drew Barham made a 3-pointer with 9:25 left. Four reserves, Barham, Stockton, Dranginis and Dower, played a total of 40 minutes, and nobody stepped up in Bell’s absence.
STATS OF NOTE
--Wichita State scored 40 points in the second half, 35 in the last 11:45. Gonzaga hadn’t yielded a 40-point half since the second half of a blowout victory over BYU in Spokane on Jan. 24. WSU’s 76 points was the most against GU since Saint Mary’s scored 78 on Jan. 10.
--Southern (10 of 23) and Wichita State (14 of 28) combined to make 24 of 51 3s against GU in two tournament games.
--Mike Hart pulled down 14 rebounds, seven offensive. His previous career high was nine rebounds.
--Hart also made a pair of 3s, just the third time this season he’s had two 3s in a game.
--Gonzaga’s 35.6 percent FG accuracy was its lowest of the season by far. It was the only game this season GU was sub 41.5 percent.
--GU had four of its five worst shooting performances in its last six games (41.5 vs. BYU, 43.5 vs. LMU, 41.8 vs. Southern, 35.6 vs. Wichita State).
Few, on WSU’s defense early in the game: “They were very aggressive and got up into us. I thought if we would have made some layups and some free throws we would have been ahead. We got shots around the rim and we’ve been missing them this whole weekend down here.”
Gary Bell, on the post-game locker room: “It was quiet, but Kelly, as the leader that he is, talked to us and told us we had a great year, which we did. We made history at Gonzaga and hopefully next year we can do the same.”
Hart, on the rebounding battle: “That’s a key stat. You usually win that and you win the game.”
Harris, on WSU’s run of 3-pointers: “We just lost a bunch of their guys at the defensive end, it’s tough to overcome 3-4 3s in a row.”
Harris, reflecting on GU career: “This whole entire year was just unbelievable and that’s something nobody can take from me. I’m proud, proud to be a Gonzaga Bulldog for life, but it’s just tough right now.”
Few: “It’s a tough, tough way to end a fabulous season. … To have the best season in the history of basketball at our school and kind of capture the attention of a nation, it was one hell of a ride.”
WSU’s Carl Hall: “The only reason I think we won is because we made shots at the end and that’s what counted. We’ve got a team of fighters, man, and we never give up.”
Few on Bell’s injury: “He couldn’t really move. We’ll have to get it evaluated when we get home.”