SALT LAKE CITY — Time after time after time, the Gonzaga Bulldogs said their No. 1 national ranking and No. 1 regional seeding meant next to nothing in the grand scheme of things.
“Those are just numbers,” the Bulldogs repeated over and over. “We still have to play the game.”
On Saturday night, the games came to an end for the Bulldogs when their oft-spoken words proved true.
Unranked Wichita State, seeded ninth in the West Region after losing three of its previous five games, rallied from eight points down with less than 12 minutes remaining to stun Gonzaga, 76-70, in the third round of the NCAA tournament.
The Shockers (28-8) head to Los Angeles to play the winner of today’s La Salle-Mississippi game in the Sweet 16.
The Bulldogs (32-3) head to Spokane to play in an open gym.
“It’s a tough, tough, tough way to end a fabulous season,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said, “but Wichita State deserves a ton of credit.
“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, who finally came out publicly and echoed most observers that the 2012-13 Bulldogs were “the best team in school history,” was critical of the late-game defense of his team. After all, Few had called this season’s Bulldogs “the best defensive team in school history.”
Forced to play most of the second half without Kentridge High graduate Gary Bell Jr. – “our best perimeter defender,” Few said – due to a foot injury, Gonzaga gave up four 3-pointers in the final 5:08.
The first of the clutch 3-pointers was fired by sweet-shooting Cleanthony Early, a junior-college transfer who had been coveted by Washington State.
The next two 3-pointers came from mop-haired Ron Baker. a redshirt freshman. The last, a fatal blow that put the Shockers up 70-65 with 1:28 to go, was delivered by true freshman Fred VanVleet.
Two days after going 2-for-20 on 3-pointers against Pittsburgh, the Shockers were 14-for-28 from behind the arc against the Zags. Earl and Baker made four apiece and tied for the team scoring lead with 16 points. VanVleet added 13 points, and Carl Hall had 10.
“The 14 3-pointers, that’s what killed us,” Gonzaga forward Elias Harris said.
The 14 3-pointers were the most allowed by Gonzaga this season. The Shockers hit 50 percent of their field goals overall, compared to 35.6 percent for the Bulldogs. Gonzaga was 8-for-23 from 3-point range.
“They defended us well,” Few said.
“We defended so well at the start of the second half,” Gonzaga wing Mike Hart said. “Then we just lost track of shooters.”
Kelly Olynyk led Gonzaga with 26 points, and he tacked on nine rebounds. Olynyk, constantly double- and triple-teamed, was 8-for-22 from the floor and 10-for-14 on free throws.
“I tip my hat to him, man,” said Hall, who often guarded Olynyk. “He’s a great player.”
Point guard Kevin Pangos collected 19 points, five assists and three steals for the Bulldogs. Harris added 12 points, seven rebounds and three steals.
A raucous crowd of 16,060 enjoyed a highly entertaining contest at EnergySolutions Arena.
The Bulldogs had the advantage in most statistics other than shooting. Defensive specialist Hart, who had five points in the previous six games (going scoreless four times), had six points and a career-high 14 rebounds for Gonzaga.
A 16-2 run midway through the first half pushed Wichita State out front, 26-12. The Bulldogs closed to 36-31 at the half, then finally regained the lead when defensive specialist Hart made his second 3-pointer of the game for a 43-41 edge with 13:38 left.
Gonzaga had trailed at the half three times previous this season, and they won the other three games.