Gonzaga lives down to expectations and ends year feeling bittersweet

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

SALT LAKE CITY -- For the fifth time in modern NCAA tournament history a No. 9 seed is going to the Sweet 16.

The Wichita State Shockers took out top-seeded Gonzaga in one of the best games -- if not the best -- of the first five days of the NCAA tournament Saturday night at EnergySolutions Arena. Wichita State 76, Gonzaga 70, and the bracket gets its latest big slaughter of a big seed. Boy, that West regional was considered an easy/bizarre arrangement when the bracket was released, and it's certainly proving all the talk right.

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Once it was over, and after the WSU players danced and sang with the Wichita State pep band, had their moment on TV and hugged anybody they knew who could get onto the floor, they strutted into the locker room. The chants and cheers could be heard for well over a minute and through a few thick, cement walls.

Hey-o, here we go!
Didn't we get that W? Yeah!
Are we moving up? Yeah!

First the players started. Then the coaches led the rally.

"The improbable is happening this year," Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said, soaked in light from TV cameras and crowded by reporters just outside the locker room. He's taking his first trip to the Sweet 16 and bringing Wichita State to its first second weekend in the NCAAs in seven years.

And now this means a No. 9, No. 12 (Ole Miss) or No. 13 (La Salle) will reach the Elite Eight. You wanted a crazy bracket to follow a crazy year? You got it.

"Today, they had to beat us," Marshall added.

Thanks to clutch 3-pointers late from freshmen Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet, the game was given a few big swings that altered the outcome. This wasn't as dramatic or surprising as No. 9 Northern Iowa taking down Kansas a few years back. Gonzaga is not Kansas. But how could this not be at least a little surprising? How can you not call 22 3-pointers made in the game -- 14 from WSU -- a shock? None were bigger than Baker's and VanVleet's. Gonzaga's Kevin Pangos said Baker's 3 with 2:55 to go that put Wichita State up 67-73 is what gave him doubt.

"That's when I thought the odds were against us," Pangos said. He added that the 3-pointers were the difference, no question. The team expected Wichita State to fire it from deep, but to sink 14 treys? No way.

Cleanthony Early, another player who came off the bench, scored 16 to tie Baker for a team high. Gonzaga was led by Kelly Olynyk's 26, supported by Pangos' 19, which came in part from four 3-pointers.

"It's hard to process," Pangos said. "It's unfortunate it had to end this way. ... It got to a point [near the end] where it seemed like if we made one more stop and prevented them from getting a big basket then we would've had it."

Wichita State took the lead back on a Carl Hall jumper with 3:30 to go, a 62-61 edge. They would never relinquish the advantage.

VanVleet's 3 two possessions later was a beautiful parabolic shot that sunk through with 1:32 to go and probably served as the nail. But before that, at the under-eight-minute television timeout, Marshall's team trailed by six. It's then when the coach asked, and I'm paraphrasing, "If I had told you guys back in the fall that you'd be down six to the number one team in the nation with eight minutes to go, would you take it?"

From there, Wichita State climbed back by way of the bomb. After going 2-of-20 from 3 against Pitt two days prior, what a reversal. Gonzaga's coaches and players admitted it afterward it was all about the 3. The game had three lead changes and two ties in the final three and a half minutes. There could and would have been more if not for the serendiptous performance that is now going to alter the narrative on Gonzaga's season this year, while at the same time bring out the critics over what Gonzaga is.

Part of that is fair, part of it is not. The Shockers normally make about one if every three 3st they take. Saturday was one in two. Teams don't shoot 50 percent against Gonzaga often. Wichita State was exactly that rate from the field and it was just enough. For Gonzaga, it's unfortunately going to be known as the best program that doesn't show up in March. The stigma has now officially been attached. Few's still not coached past an Elite Eight and has managed four Sweet 16 trips in 13 years.

"Tonight is gonna feel awful, but then a couple of days go by and they'll realize it was one hell of a ride," Zags coach Mark Few said. He called it the greatest Gonzaga team in school history. "For five and a half months, we had a heck of a lot of fun."

Senior Elias Harris said the team felt no pressure in having that No. 1 ranking in the polls and the No. 1 seed overall. He also said the outcome confused him.

"I don't even know what's going through my head right now," he said.

I asked him questions, and he apologized for taking so long to answer. He was frustrated -- this wasn't supposed to be how Gonzaga's year ended. Not with this team.

"This whole week we couldn't show what we were made of," Harris said. "That's the frustrating part. ... It was an unbelievable season, no doubt in my mind. Despite the fact we lost tonight, people gotta see the bigger picture."

He shook off any suggestions that the Southern game had lingering effect. In that locker room I saw an ambivalent team. They'd fallen short, but they still had accomplished some things that no other group from that school had. Players were checking phones, scarfing down pizza. There were a few smiles to balance out the solemn faces.

"That's why you play sports -- the up and down," Kelly Olynyk said, a fat ice pack wrapped tightly around his right knee. And I guess this is mandatory to include, but yes he was asked about going pro and yes he naturally gave the "I haven't even thought about that yet" answer.

If anything, Few's teams always have perspective, and maybe that's why they come up short more times than not.

But the Zags got a little unlucky in the tangible personnel way, too. Gary Bell had a foot problem at halftime. At first the team thought it was an ankle, but that turned out not to be the case. So without their best perimeter player, Wichita State still launched 3 after 3, came back and gave Gonzaga its biggest heartbreak since the blown game against UCLA in the 2006 regional semifinals.

On the winning side, former Shocker/current NBA player Antoine Carr delivered a message to this team last fall, at Homecoming. He addressed the club and wrote on a white board: "Play Angry." He challenged his school before a game began.

He texted that message again to Marshall prior to the team's game against Pitt. The coach passed it on to his players. So after playing angry for 40 minutes Thursday and then another 40 Saturday, Wichita State's players got real happy real fast. Hall was cracking jokes with teammates left and right. It was hilarious. The man can dance -- I think.

On the other side of the arena, Gonzaga was getting ready to slink back to Spokane, it fully having proven to not let the hoops-loving general public trust this team until it proves us wrong and wins when we don't expect it to. There's some full-circle irony in that.

It feels like, at least in March anyway, the school's headed back to being perceived as the small guy without a lot of hope. Maybe that's what it needs. Maybe that's how Gonzaga will eventually, one day, let us be surprised for all the right reasons.

 
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