With everything perfectly aligned for them in the West Region, the Gonzaga Bulldogs certainly chose the wrong time to prove themselves unworthy of the opportunities this crazy college basketball season offered them.
Having barely avoided making dubious history in their opening game of the NCAA Tournament, they turned around and allowed another mid-major school to stage the kind of upset that once was Gonzaga’s hallmark.
Wichita State deserves huge credit for a remarkable closing stretch that gave the No. 9-seeded Shockers a 76-70 victory Saturday night at EnergySolutions Arena. Yet this episode will be remembered around here mostly for Gonzaga’s failings.
The story revolves around what potentially awaited the Bulldogs in the Sweet 16. They would have arrived in Los Angeles to discover only a No. 12 (Mississippi) or No. 13 (La Salle) seed between them and their first Elite Eight appearance since 1999. And then who knows what may have happened against No. 6 Arizona or, presumably, No. 2 Ohio State?
Instead, the Bulldogs and everybody else can only wonder why they could not respond any better to the school’s first No. 1 seed. The team that went unbeaten against BYU and the rest of the West Coast Conference came to town with a son of John Stockton on the roster and two former University of Utah coaches on the staff, but could not take advantage of circumstances that may never be this favorable again.
“A tough, tough, tough way to end a fabulous season,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few.
“I don’t even know what’s going through my head right now,” said senior forward Elias Harris. “It’s just over now, and it’s sad.”
Turns out, the Bulldogs (32-3) rose above themselves to do what they’d done this season, before coming to Salt Lake City. They’re not just especially talented, beyond center Kelly Olynyk. Yet if ever Gonzaga was going to rise to a Final Four level, this seemingly was the year.
It did not help Gonzaga’s cause to lose guard Gary Bell Jr., the team’s best perimeter defender, to a foot injury early in the second half. But the Shockers undoubtedly were deserving. WSU coach Gregg Marshall applauded his team’s resolve and perseverance, and those traits were evident to everybody.
Much of this game was anything but artistic — at times, bordering on unwatchable, amid all the fouls and turnovers. And then it suddenly turned into a classic.
Having trailed by 13 points in the first half, the Bulldogs used a 12-0 run to take an eight-point lead early in the second half. But the Shockers just kept coming, hitting five consecutive 3-point attempts and scoring on 11 straight possessions down the stretch.
The dagger was Fred VanVleet’s long 3-pointer with the shot clock expiring and 1:28 remaining in the game, just after Gonzaga had cut the lead to 67-65. If not for WSU’s clutch performance, the Bulldogs may have survived the way they did Thursday, after being tied with No. 16 seed Southern in the last four minutes. Instead, their errors became glaring — including an in-bounds violation and Olynyk’s wild shot attempt at critical moments.
Olynyk scored 26 points, but that total required 22 shot attempts and a bunch of free throws. The Bulldogs shot 35.6 percent from the field. Yet they led by one point with 3:17 remaining, the stage when they’re accustomed to seizing control of games when necessary.
Not this time. The Bulldogs ran into a similarly hard-working, overachieving team that wants to become another Gonzaga.
And now, the Shockers are right where Gonzaga figured to be, facing a lower-seeded team in the Sweet 16.