SALT LAKE CITY – You could hear the celebration in the hallway, the walls of the EnergySolutions Arena concourse reverberating with the sounds of chants and yells that signified the toppling of a giant.
And once you got inside Wichita State’s locker room, you could see it, too.
Gregg Marshall, the team’s 6th-year coach, danced a jig and sang the same pro-Shockers chant that the whole team had belted out minutes prior.
Chadrack Lufile simply wept, head in his hands, teammates laughing and prodding alongside him.
Lufile, a junior, played exactly one minute. He committed a foul and a turnover.
“Best game of my life,” he said before a TV camera, still in tears.
This, apparently, is what it feels like to beat the No. 1 team in the country, which is what the Shockers did here Saturday night, dealing Gonzaga its third loss of the season with a 76-70 beating that sends WSU to next week’s Sweet 16 in Los Angeles.
Speculation about Gonzaga’s vulnerability led respectable folks to believe the Shockers could win, and so the victory in itself is not the night’s biggest surprise.
It’s how Wichita State made it happen that will turn heads.
The Shockers (28-8) shoot 33 percent from 3-point range as a team. They average about 19.5 attempts per game, and typically make about 6.5 of those. That average plummeted in their black-and-blue win over Pittsburgh on Thursday, as WSU used a grueling defensive effort to hide the fact that it made just two of its 20 attempts from beyond the 3-point arc.
So, color surprised anyone who watched the Shockers make 14-of-28 from 3-point range against Gonzaga, a team that allowed opponents to shoot just 32.3 percent on such attempts this season.
“We know what we’re capable of on offense but we haven’t really displayed it this year,” said freshman guard Fred VanVleet, whose unlikely 3-pointer with the shot clock winding down gave WSU a 70-65 lead with 1:26 to play.
VanVleet’s performance also had anomalistic qualities: the freshman guard entered the game averaging 3.8 points per game. He scored 13 on Saturday, making a pair of 3-pointers and all five of his free-throw attempts.
“He wins most of the drills in our practice, and we chart those,” Marshall said. “We strive to win, and we compete every day and there are sprints for the losers, and Fred is a winner.”
Another freshman, Ron Baker, a 30.9-percent 3-point shooter, made 4-of-6 from 3-point range and scored 16 points, connecting on two 3-pointers and two free throws in the final 4:24.
“We shoot well in practice,” said Baker, who missed 21 games this season with a stress fracture in his left foot. “So why can’t we shoot it good in a game when no one has seen us shoot that well?”
Well, they can. And they did. This was a different kind of victory for the Shockers. They were even outrebounded, 39-30, another surprising statistic considering WSU ranks seventh in the nation in rebounding margin.
It was the offensive glass that kept Gonzaga (32-3) – which shot just 35.6 percent from the field – around in the first half, when the Shockers built a 13-point lead and established their hot-shooting tone.
And after the Bulldogs came back in the second half, leading by as many as eight points, Wichita State went back to work. The Shockers went more than seven minutes without an empty offensive possession down the stretch, producing points on eight consecutive trips down the floor.
“I’ve always said, if we shoot the ball well, we’re hard to beat,” Marshall said. “And tonight, we shot it well. It was one of those nights where it went in.”
And in, and in, and in, bumping Gonzaga out in the process.