SALT LAKE CITY — It was either a case of terrible timing or a perfect defensive performance.
Maybe a little bit of both.
Top-ranked Gonzaga had its worst shooting performance (35.6 percent) of the season Saturday in the NCAA tournament's third round against Wichita State. At the same time, the Zags had some rare defensive lapses against a Shockers team that couldn’t win the Missouri Valley Conference tournament but believed it was capable of crashing the NCAA’s Sweet 16.
“Well, hey, it’s a tough, tough, tough way to end a fabulous season,” said Gonzaga head coach Mark Few after his team lost to the Shockers, 76-70. “But Wichita State deserves a ton of credit. They stepped up and made big shot after big shot, especially after we dug ourselves (a hole). ... To have the best season of basketball at our school and kind of capture the attention of a nation we had a lot of fun.”
A lot of fun, that is, until the party ended shortly before 10 p.m. Saturday in Salt Lake City. The ninth-seeded Shockers showed up at EnergySolutions Arena apparently unaware they were playing the country’s best team.
“We approached it like any other game,” said Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall. “It’s not a cliché. The next team in the bracket for the NCAA tournament, whoever comes up, La Salle or Ole Miss, it’s going to be a great challenge, and we’re going to prepare the exact same way.”
Wichita State played its aggressive, physical style of basketball from the opening tip, which they won. The Shockers didn’t have a single player in double digits at halftime and yet led 36-31.
While the Zags relied on senior Mike Hart, who had a career-high 14 rebounds, and junior Kelly Olynyk, who scored a game-high 26, the Shockers were propelled by their youngest players.
Freshman Fred VanVleet (13 points) and redshirt freshman Ron Baker (16 points) hit critical 3-point shots and free throws in the final three minutes of the thriller.
“What does it say about the future of our program?” said Marshall with a grin. “Those two guys are making most of the big shots at the end.”
Baker, who just came back from an injury days before the MVC tournament, hit a 3-point shot that most players wouldn’t have taken, let alone made, in the game’s waning minutes.
“It was a rainbow,” said Marshall. “It was majestic, and it was forever. He’s a winner; Ron Baker is a winner, multi-sport athlete, pitcher, shortstop, quarterback, great basketball player. Fred VanVleet is the same way. He wants to beat you in whatever he plays.”
Marshall said the key was holding the Zags to 35 percent shooting and relentless effort.
“They never quit,” he said. “You know we got the big lead; Gonzaga makes a great run as the No. 1 team in the country would ... but they never stopped. This is the epitome of a team. They don’t care about individual stats; it’s all about winning. They’ve done that for years now and the last couple of months it’s been truly special. You don’t know all the adversity this team has gone through. ... It’s a wonderful moment for our program, our school and our city.”
After the win, Marshall took off his suit coat and danced with his team, band members and fans who held signs that said, “We’re not satisfied.”
“Man it means a lot,” said Carl Hall, who struggled to find the words to describe his emotions. “It means a lot to this program and our fans deserve this. We came to play defense. That is what we do. We play defense. We have been in situations five or six times being down late in the game like that. We came fighting back.”
Cleanthony Early said the fact that most people didn’t even believe the Shockers would win a single game never bothered the players.
“You hear stuff, and people come up to you saying, ‘What do you think? Seventy percent of America has you losing the first game.’ And you have to avoid everyone’s opinion and go out there and play hard. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter because we play the game of basketball, and that’s what we’re going to try to do to the best of our ability.” While the Shockers celebrate their unlikely win and plan for their Sweet 16 appearance, the Bulldogs (32-3) have to be content with one of the best regular seasons any team has ever put together.
“I don’t even know what’s going through my head right now,” said senior Elias Harris. “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.”