SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The Gonzaga Bulldogs had been playing with a small margin for error, yet somehow surviving, for several weeks heading into this year’s NCAA tournament.
But on Thursday night, in the opening round of the West Regional in Arco Arena, the Zags finally failed to find a way.
Plagued by bad shooting, poor decision-making, untimely turnovers, a baffling lack of energy and Indiana’s solid defensive pressure, the Bulldogs wrote a rather uninspired ending to a crazily uneven basketball season, falling to the Hoosiers 70-57 in what proved to be the final game for seniors Derek Raivio and Sean Mallon.
The 10th-seeded Zags, who led once – and briefly, at that – never found any kind of offensive rhythm against seventh-seeded IU, shooting a season-low 33.9 percent (19 of 56) from the field, missing far too many close-range gimmes and turning the ball over 13 times.
In addition, GU (23-11) was abused on the boards by a 45-30 margin that left coaches and players stumbling to find explanations.
“We hit a bump in the road at the wrong time,” said junior forward David Pendergraft, who finished with 12 points, despite missing several wide-open shots. “There were some people, myself included, missing layins that we never miss.
“And then all of those in-and-out shots … I know I had a couple that were way down and I was like, ‘Wow! How is that popping out?’ Shots like that dramatically change games.”
Mallon, who scored 11 points and pulled down a team-high six rebounds in his last game as a Bulldog, said the contest had a strange feel from the opening tip.
“There was no rhythm out there, whatsoever,” he said. “It just kind of had a weird feel to it. The only game I can really compare it to would be the Nevada game (a 91-72 second-round tournament loss) my freshman year. It had the same kind of feeling.”
Indiana (21-10) rocked GU early with a barrage of 3-pointers that wiped out the Zags’ 10-8 lead. The Hoosiers’ first seven buckets came from long range, and it took almost 15 minutes for them to score from inside the 3-point line.
Senior guard Roderick Wilmont scored a game-high 22 points for IU, which moves on to face second-seeded UCLA in a second-round game Saturday. Junior center D.J. White added a 16-point, 10-rebound effort, and Earl Calloway, another senior guard, chipped in 11 points for first-year coach Kelvin Sampson’s Hoosiers.
But it wasn’t his team’s offense that impressed Sampson.
“I just thought our defense was tremendous,” Sampson said. “We’re not an offensive juggernaut, so the way we’re going to win games is with defense and rebounding.
“It was a good game, overall, but I felt defense and rebounding were why we won. I thought we played smart, with a high basketball IQ tonight.”
The Hoosiers, after opening a 34-29 halftime lead, took advantage of several missed opportunities by Gonzaga to open the second period with an 11-6 run that increased their advantage to 45-35 and seemed to demoralize the Bulldogs.
Zags coach Mark Few likened the way his team was running its offense – getting decent shots but not finishing – to performing “that old great surgery, but the patient dies.”
“When you run it and somebody gets a wide-open look or layin and you miss it, it can tend to be a little deflating,” he said. “I think our guys were a little bit frustrated, and then they kept banging in 3s.”
“Scouting them, we knew they were going to shoot 3s,” said GU sophomore guard Jeremy Pargo, who scored seven points and handed out four assists. “Fortunately for them, they made some big ones early in the second half – even late in the second half, and we couldn’t counter.”
The Hoosiers shot 39.7 percent (23 of 58) for the game. But it was more than enough to put away the Bulldogs, whose point total was their second lowest of the season.
“It just wasn’t our night tonight,” said Raivio, who matched Pendergraft’s 12 points and finished as GU’s single-season and career leader in free-throw percentage. “We had a lot of shots around the hoop. I missed one or two, and a couple of other guys missed a couple. That happens. Not all of them can go it, and sometimes you have a rough game like that.”
GU junior center Abdullahi Kuso, a first-year transfer, missed three close-in shots and freshman Matt Bouldin made 2 of 6 basket tries, prompting Few to say, “Some of our new guys just didn’t quite respond. They weren’t quite as aggressive as we needed them to be. They were a little bit passive and, maybe, a little apprehensive.
“And we got outrebounded by 15. We haven’t been outrebounded like that. We just didn’t have it tonight.”
Few added he was as proud of this year’s team as any of the nine he’s taken to the NCAA tournament.
“It was an incredibly successful season,” he said, “especially with what we lost from the year before and with what he had coming back. To take on the schedule we took on and to win another league championship is hard to do.”
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