By Peter Tormey
SALT LAKE CITY – Ninth-seed Wichita State stunned the No. 1-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs 76-70 on Saturday in the third-round of the NCAA Tournament at the EnergySolutions Arena, ending the Zags’ remarkable season of firsts. The Shockers (28-8), who drained 14 3-pointers in the game, advance to the West Regional in Los Angeles to play the winner of Sunday’s Mississippi-La Salle game.
Coach Mark Few called the loss “a tough, tough, tough way to end a fabulous season,” and credited the Zags for their record-setting year in which they became the first Gonzaga team to earn the nation’s No. 1 ranking, a top seed in the Big Dance, and win 30 games.
“These guys, I told them after the game, had an unbelievable year, one for the ages,” Few said. “To have the best season in the history of basketball at our school and kind of capture the attention of a nation, it was one hell of a ride. We had a lot of fun.”
Few credited Wichita State for making one big shot after another.
“They stepped up and made big shot after big shot, especially after we dug ourselves, not only back in the game, but kind of started to take control of it,” Few said. “They deserve a ton of credit. It’s a first time in a while somebody shot 50 percent on us and to bang in 14 threes is pretty amazing.”
The Bulldogs (32-3) overcame a rocky first-half shooting in which they trailed nearly the entire way, including by up to 13 points with 7:01 remaining, to close the halftime deficit to 36-31. The Zags took their first second-period lead, 43-41, on a 3-pointer by Mike Hart with 13:38 remaining and extended that lead by 8 points. However, Wichita State made five 3-pointers, including two by freshman guard Ron Baker, to cut Gonzaga’s lead to 61-60 with 4:23 remaining.
Senior Mike Hart was asked how the Shockers got back into the game at that point.
“I think we lost some shooters on the defensive end and let our guard down a little bit,” Hart said. “We defended so well at the start of the second half, and then we just lost some guys. You can’t do that. When guys have it going, you’ve got to have a hand up and stay close to your assignments, and we lost them on a few possessions there and that really hurt us.”
View Zags’ Guard Kevin Pangos’ Postgame Comments:
The Zags made three of their next five shots, including two free-throws, but turned the ball over once while the Shockers sank five in a row – including two 3-pointers and two free-throws – to move ahead 70-65 with 1:28 left. With Gonzaga having to foul in the waning 39 seconds, the Shockers sealed the victory by making all 6 at the free-throw line.
For the game, Wichita State shot 50 percent from the floor and the 3-point line while Gonzaga shot 35.6 percent from the floor and made 34.8 percent of their 3-pointers. Gonzaga outshot WSU at the charity stripe 69 percent to 66.7 percent.
Baker and junior forward Early Cleanthony led the Shockers with 16 points apiece while junior forward Kelly Olynyk led Gonzaga with 26 points and 9 rebounds and sophomore guard Kevin Pangos contributed 19 points. Forward Elias Harris added 12 points and 7 rebounds for the Zags.
Harris called the feeling after the loss difficult to describe:
“I don’t even know what’s going through my head right now,” said the senior from Germany. “It is what it is. It was a heck of a year. It’s just over now, and it’s sad. It hurts, but that’s life, I guess.”
Hart said he was amazed at how quickly the season ended.
“We had a great year. We’ll look back and savor this year and cherish it and understand how great it was. But it’s pretty rough right now because we definitely came up short of where we were looking for,” Hart said.
Sophomore guard Gary Bell was unable to play in the second half due to severe foot pain, Few said.
“It ended up being his foot. I have no idea, but he was in a lot of pain. He couldn’t really move, and we’ll have to get it evaluated now when we get home,” Few said. “That didn’t help us defensively. He’s our best perimeter defender.”
View Bell’s postgame comments below: