Wichita turns tables on Gonzaga as this year's Sweet Sixteen darling, breaks West Regional wide open.
By JACK MAGRUDER FS Arizona
SALT LAKE CITY – Now Gonzaga knows how it feels. The glass slipper fits Wichita State.
The Shockers Gonzaga-ed Gonzaga on Saturday, continuing the theme that played out over the first weekend of the NCAA tournament with a 76-70 victory over the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs in an NCAA West subregional at Energy Solutions Arena.
Gonzaga built its program on NCAA tournament upsets beginning in the late 1990s, making three straight regional finals as a No. 10 seed or worse. But on this night it was Wichita State celebrating at center court, dancing along with the pep band, after making clutch shot after clutch shot.
“Seeding in the NCAA tournament means nothing,” said Wichita State triple-threat
Ron Baker, who had 16 points, six rebounds and four assists.
It came down to simple math. No. 9-seed Wichita State (28-8) shot 50 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point range, finishing 14 for 28 from long range. Gonzaga shot 35.6 percent from the floor, and a 39-30 rebounding edge was not enough to make up the difference. The Shockers made five 3-pointers in the final 6:05 to overcome a 58-51 deficit.
And as suddenly as Wichita State knocked down threes, the West Regional opened. No. 2-seed Ohio State is the only top-five seed remaining in the 16-team region, and it still has a game against 10th-seeded Iowa State on Sunday for a spot in the Sweet Sixteen. The way the West is going, that is far from a sure thing.
No. 3-seed New Mexico, No. 4-seed Kansas State and No. 5-Wisconsin lost on the first full day Thursday, leaving No. 6 Arizona as the highest seed to have advanced to the next round, which begins Thursday at Staples Center. In addition to the Ohio State game in Dayton, No. 12 Ole Miss meets No. 13 LaSalle in Kansas City. Those two winners will join Wichita State and Arizona in Los Angeles.
“Everybody is evenly matched. You see how it is going now. All the top teams are getting beat,” Shockers senior forward Carl Hall said.
“The underdog teams are coming to play with a chip on their shoulder. We felt that way. We felt like we could compete with anybody. We don’t play for individual stats. We play for the win. That’s all that matters. I don’t care if I score zero points and zero rebounds. It’s on to the next game.”
The Shockers will make their first appearance in the Sweet Sixteen since 2006, when they beat Seton Hall and Tennessee before losing to George Mason.
That is not quite as long as Hall had been growing his hair, which dreadlocked down his back before he cut the five years of growth earlier this week.
“I just wanted to try something different and give my team something to laugh at going into the tournament,” Hall said. “I’m guessing the hair is working. I was kind of scared at first. I lay in the bed at night and I rub my head, wondering, 'What did I do?'
"It was worth it now. I haven’t seen this person in five years. If I can do this all over again, I’d cut it again.”
Gonzaga forward Kelly Olynyk had 26 points and nine rebounds, but it took him 22 shots to get there. Kevin Pangos had 19 points on 17 shots, finishing 4 for 12 from 3-point range. Elias Harris has 12 points on 2-for-8 shooting.
“It hurts, but that’s life, I guess,” Harris said.
Bulldogs coach Mark Few tried to look at the bigger picture.
“To have the best season in the history of basketball at our school and kind of capture the attention of the nation, it was one hell of a ride. We had a lot of fun,” Few said.
The Shockers, who have four new starters from a team that was eliminated by Virginia Commonwealth in the first round last year, took the lead for good when Baker made two free throws to make it 64-63 with 3:10 left.
Wichita State got the ball immediately afterward, when Gonzaga’s Elias Harris received an inbounds pass under the basket but then ran back out of bounds, apparently thinking the ball had not come from a teammate.
The Shockers followed with the biggest basket of the game, as freshman guard
Fred VanVleet hit a 21-foot, contested 3-pointer from the left wing just before the shot clock expired. That made it 70-65, and Gonzaga (32-3) never had the ball with a chance to tie from that point on, missing a chance at its sixth Sweet Sixteen.
“I feel like I can do that all the time. I have great confidence in myself,” VanVleet said. "I don’t know how many teams would get the ball to a freshman with the clock running down, but the opportunity happened and I just made the most of it. I was looking at the hoop. I knew he was a smaller defender, so I felt comfortable to rise over him."
VanVleet made four free throws in the final 58.6 seconds and finished with 13 points. Baker had 16 points and six rebounds, going 4 for 6 from 3-point range. Forward Cleanthony Early, who did not start since the Shockers went with three guards to match up with Gonzaga, had 16 points and seven rebounds. Early went 4 for 7 from behind the arc.
“I think they were saying they didn’t know who our post players were, but I bet they know who they are now,” VanVleet said. “They’re No. 1 and all that, so it is nice to knock off a No. 1. We have great confidence that we can play with anybody in the country, and we proved it tonight.”