Salt Lake City – Of every stop on a team’s path to an NCAA Championship, no round holds more pitfall potential than the Round of 32. It is the stage at which a contender has not yet made it far enough into the tournament to deem a season acceptable, but must face a team that has already proven itself capable of winning big games.
Gonzaga, having gone to the NCAA Tournament for 19 consecutive years, has had plenty of heartbreak in this treacherous round, and some triumphs as well. The top-seeded Zags will risk the Round of 32 again on Saturday at 2:15 p.m. against No. 8 seed Northwestern.
Before they do, let’s take a look at the agony and the ecstasy the Bulldogs have experienced in the Round of 32. Here are the three most painful losses and the three most joyful wins.
Gonzaga’s worst Round of 32 losses
Final Score: 89-67
Gonzaga’s loss to BYU in Denver signaled not only the end of the Zags’ 2011 NCAA Tournament run, but possibly the end of their West Coast Conference dominance, as well. The Cougars would join the WCC the following season, and by blowing out Gonzaga, the reigning conference bully, BYU showed that it would be a force to be reckoned with in the coming years.
National scoring leader Jimmer Fredette was his usual prolific self, leading all scorers with 34 points. But it was his supporting cast that made BYU too much for GU to handle, even without the presence of suspended forward Brandon Davies.
Jackson Emery, Noah Hartsock and Stephen Rogers combined to score 39 points on 14-for-20 shooting, helping the Cougars overpower the GU defense.
Place: Salt Lake City
Final Score: 76-70
Gonzaga’s best defensive team yet was undone by a flurry of 3-pointers in the closing minutes and the Bulldogs became the first team to discover that Wichita State plays big-time basketball. GU had finally earned its first No. 1 seed but was sent packing in the Round of 32 by the newest mid-major power on the block.
There was trouble early – GU trailed by 13 points in the first half, its biggest deficit of the season – but the Bulldogs appeared to take control of the game early in the second half, going on a 12-0 run to take a 49-41 lead. The Zags still led by seven points with 6:25 left in the game before the Shockers scored on eight consecutive possessions, hitting five 3-pointers in that span.
The Shockers held off GU by hitting six free throws in the final minute, sending the most promising group of Zags yet home during the tournament’s first weekend.
Place: Salt Lake City
Final Score: 96-95
This double-overtime game was a marathon run by boxers who were so exhausted by the end that neither team scored in the final 2:04. It’s doubtful anyone present minded the dearth of baskets, or that the suspense dropped an iota.
There was far too much going on. GU was called for a shot-clock violation on its first attempt to retake the lead despite a pair of decent looks at the basket. Then Arizona’s Salim Stoudemire missed an open 3-point look. GU’s Blake Stepp seemed ready for the rebound, but was bumped out of bounds by an Arizona player.
With less than 10 seconds to play the Zags caught a break when an out-of-bounds call was reversed to give them possession. But Stepp’s final jumper bounced off the rim and was corralled by Luke Walton.
Though the ninth-seeded Zags lost, by hanging with the top-seeded Wildcats until neither team had anything left in the tank, GU established its arrival as one of the country’s elite college basketball programs.
Gonzaga’s best Round of 32 wins
Final score: 83-81
And to think, Demetri Goodson had been subbed into the game to play defense. With fourth-seeded Gonzaga trying desperately to avoid an upset, coach Mark Few plugged in the freshman guard hoping to preserve the last remnants of a nine-point lead the Zags burned up over the game’s final 2:04.
That part didn’t work. WKU’s Steffphon Pettigrew hit a shot to tie the game with 7.9 seconds to go. Which means it took Goodson exactly seven seconds to receive the inbounds pass, run the length of the court and hit a running bank shot from just inside the free throw line to win the game with 0.9 seconds to spare.
After the game, Few compared the shot to Casey Calvary’s famous tip-in in 1999 that beat Florida and sent GU to the Elite Eight.
“It’ll be 1 and 1A,” Few said about which was the greatest shot in school history.
Final score: 82-74
Of course, Casey Calvary’s famous shot never would have happened if the Zags had not upset second-seeded Stanford one week earlier in the Round of 32. Stanford, led by Mark Madsen, was the Pac-10 champion and a preseason favorite to win the national title by many publications.
But the Zags had a large contingent of fans who made the trip from Spokane, and surprised Stanford by going to work inside against the high-profile Cardinal big men. By going inside early, the Bulldogs cleared up space outside for Cavalry, who drained his first two 3-point attempts before slamming home an emphatic alley-oop.
The score was tied at 49 with just fewer than 12 minutes to play, but GU went on a 20-10 run to take firm command of the game.
Final score: 82-59
By 2015, Gonzaga’s place among college basketball’s elite programs was well established. Still, this was supposed to be a down year. The Bulldogs even needed to win the WCC championship to assure themselves of an NCAA Tournament berth, and even then were awarded a mere 12 seed.
Even after beating up Big East champion Seton Hall, it was thought No. 4 seed Utah and star center Jakob Poeltl would make short work of the Zags. Instead it was GU that proved to have the better team and big man.
Sophomore forward Domantas Sabonis all but declared his candidacy for the NBA Draft with a stirring 19-point, 10-rebound effort to send GU on to the Sweet 16. Poeltl, meanwhile, finished with a measly five points and four boards in 24 minutes.
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