SAN JOSE, Calif. – It was the best shot Jordan Mathews never saw go in.
The senior guard buried a 3-pointer inside the final minute to give Gonzaga the lead and the second-ranked Zags preserved a 61-58 victory over West Virginia with a defensive stand in the closing seconds.
Gonzaga (35-1) hasn’t been in tense situations often this season. The Zags trailed in the second half for just the fourth time. They trailed in the final two minutes for just the second time. The first was against BYU, and that didn’t end well.
The Zags’ lone loss lingered in the minds of many, who questioned their ability to finish in a tight game against a quality opponent. The Zags may have changed that perception by making all the key plays in crunch time.
“It’s huge,” junior guard Nigel Williams-Goss said. “Again, people question how many tough games we’ve played in and would it catch up to us. Super proud of us for staying together. Down the stretch you really have to rely on each other sticking together.”
The scores was even at 55 until West Virginia’s Jevon Carter stepped around a screen and connected on a 3-pointer with 1:40 remaining. Those would be the fourth-seeded Mountaineers’ last points.
By the numbers: Take a numerical look at how the Zags and Mountaineers stacked up on Thursday evening
Gonzaga, meanwhile, was just getting started. Williams-Goss, who struggled offensively throughout, made a pair of free throws. A few minutes earlier, he dropped a tough baseline jumper for just his second field goal.
Then it was Josh Perkins’ turn. The sophomore guard had been under scrutiny of late for his declining production behind the 3-point arc and some turnover issues. He wasn’t flashy against the Mountaineers, but he was gritty and solid, commodities GU needed to endure in this physical battle.
Three keys to Gonzaga’s 61-58 victory over West Virginia for a berth in Saturday’s Elite Eight
WVU 6-foot-9 senior forward Nathan Adrian looked to be in the clear for a layup but Perkins, six inches shorter than the Mountaineer, swatted the shot.
“It was just a scramble (after a missed WVU free throw) and the ball bounced to him,” Perkins said. “It’s either me make a play or we go down three. At that point, I’m going to either block it or make him earn it at the free-throw line.”
It was just Perkins’ sixth block of the season, which hasn’t gone unnoticed by his teammates.
“It’s an inside joke in the locker room,” he said. “I’m always taking big swings at the ball always. It paid off today.”
The ensuing shot by Mathews was perhaps the biggest of the season and one of the biggest ever by a Zag in an NCAA tournament game. During a lengthy review by officials with 1:59 left, Mathews told Williams-Goss and Perkins, “if I come off and you see me, I’m going to put that home.”
Williams-Goss fed the ball ahead in transition to Mathews, who coolly buried the 3-pointer. At least it looked cool from the vantage point of spectators and teammates.
“I didn’t see it (go in),” said Mathews, pointing out the shot was contested by the Mountaineers’ 6-9 Elijah Macon. “I was fading away. I heard everybody’s reaction.”
But you knew it was down, right?
“I thought it was going to be long and go to Przemek (Karnowski) because he had somebody on his back,” said Mathews, honest to a fault. “I thought if it bounced off it would go to Przemek and he’d lay it back in. But it went down.”
And with it, so did the perception that the Zags couldn’t dig out a big win on a big stage.
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