BUFFALO, N.Y. – Matt Bouldin just wouldn’t let it enter his mind.
“I was just doing all that I could to make it not my last game,” he said Sunday after Gonzaga’s 87-65 season-ending loss to Syracuse. “I wasn’t thinking about it being over. Yeah, I didn’t go into that half thinking, ‘Hey, this could be my last half.’
Bouldin’s four-year Gonzaga career was filled with a lot of positives, even if his final game wasn’t.
He finishes in the school’s career top 10 in points (1,683, sixth), assists (444, fifth) and steals (170, tied for third with Jeremy Pargo).
“He’s a quintessential Gonzaga guard,” coach Mark Few said. “Now that it’s over, he goes right alongside (John) Stockton and (Dan) Dickau and (Blake) Stepp as one of the all-time greats.
“It’s unfortunate he didn’t get to end his career on maybe one of his best games.”
Bouldin had his troubles shooting against the Orange, missing 10 of his 13 shots and all six he took from beyond the arc. With eight points, he failed to hit double figures for the sixth time this season.
“Absolutely not the way you want to send out a guy like Matt, a friend, a teammate,” junior Steven Gray said. “You wish you could send him out in a better fashion, one fitting with the type of career he had here.
“You can’t let this one loss reflect on the career he’s had.”
In his eighth NCAA tournament game, the 6-foot-5 Bouldin grabbed three rebounds, putting him sixth all time among Zags in NCAA games with 38.
In his four years, the native of Highlands Ranch, Colo., has been part of teams that won 103 games and four West Coast Conference titles.
“The fact he was able to lead us to 27 wins,” Few said, “(when) we’ve never been so inexperienced and so new. Matt was basically the guy that had to pull it all together.”
Asked to summarize Bouldin’s career, Few demurred.
“I don’t think I can sum it up in one sentence,” he said. “I would have to write a thesis on him.”
Gonzaga has run into several top-shelf teams this season. Michigan State, which has advanced to the Sweet 16, was ranked No. 2 when it rallied to beat the Zags in East Lansing. Duke, another Sweet 16 qualifier, was No. 7 when it administered a 76-41 rout over the Zags. Wisconsin, bounced by Cornell on Sunday, was in the top 25 most of the year. The Badgers lost to GU in Maui.
But the consensus of Gonzaga players: Syracuse is the best team they faced this season.
“If they continue to play like that, I’m pretty sure they’ll make the Final Four and probably win the whole tournament,” Gonzaga freshman forward Elias Harris said. “Duke is stronger inside, but Syracuse’s guards do a heck of a job.”
Guard Andy Rautins, who scored 24 points and had four assists, is an NBA player “no doubt in my mind,” Few said. “He’s quick, much quicker live (than on video). You can have a hand up and it doesn’t matter. It hits his hands, it’s going up.”
Keep in mind the Orange played without injured starting post Arinze Onuaku, who averages 10.5 points and 5.1 rebounds.
“I do think they’re better (than Duke),” Bouldin said.
Harris and center Robert Sacre combined for 16 of Gonzaga’s 20 free-throw attempts, 41 of the Bulldogs’ 65 points and 16 of the team’s 27 rebounds. Both found room to operate on the interior against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defense.
“You go inside-out against a zone like that and you can be successful,” Sacre said. “I thought we stuck to it pretty good. Their 3s killed us, but you have to credit them, hitting shots with hands in their face. Conversely, the shots weren’t falling for us, but that’s part of the game.”
They were falling for GU’s inside duo (16 of 24 field goals).
“Against their zone, the second row (back three) was the row where you can attack, mostly because they have a lot of gaps there,” Harris said. “That worked out well for us in the first half, but we just lost our concept toward the end of the first half and about the first 10 minutes of the second half. You can’t have those rollercoaster trips, the ups and downs.”
Harris’ 24 points were the most he scored since pouring in 31 against Saint Mary’s on Jan. 14. It was his first 20-point game in 13 contests, dating to a 21-point effort against San Francisco. Sacre’s 17 points were his highest in 19 games.
Low on reserves
Gonzaga’s bench, shut out in Friday’s 67-60 win over Florida State, was a bit more productive against the Orange. Reserves had seven points, led by freshman Kelly Olynyk’s four points and four boards. G.J. Vilarino added three points.
With GU struggling to score from the perimeter, Few tried several options (Bol Kong and Grant Gibbs) but couldn’t find a hot hand.
“We never could quite get Bol as aggressive as he was at the start of the year,” Few said. “We tried to encourage him to play with confidence and hunt his shot but we just couldn’t do it.”
The Zags’ bench was depleted by the loss of wing Manny Arop to a broken foot in the semifinals of the WCC tournament.
“That was a real setback,” Olynyk said. “He was great for us, great down the stretch and he was hitting shots and attacking the glass. Syracuse beat us on the glass (38-27) so that really hurt us.”