Gonzaga senior Kyle Wiltjer realizes the Bulldogs should be playing for a Final Four berth Sunday. So do his teammates.
But Syracuse gets the opportunity to upset top-seeded Virginia in the Midwest Regional final because the Zags failed to take advantage of a gift — the basketball equivalent of a fifth down — with 11 seconds remaining Friday night.
Until then, the officials had given the Orange the benefit of almost every call, sending it to the free-throw line for 16 attempts while limiting Gonzaga to five. The disparity mitigated the Zags’ edge in shooting accuracy and total rebounding, and helped turn what could have been a routine victory into one of those crash-and-burn finishes that leaves the losers crestfallen, with towels over their heads.
And yet, had Gonzaga been more efficient during a possession it didn’t deserve, Syracuse fans, following the cue of mopey head coach Jim Boeheim, would be grousing about how their team was victimized by a bad call. Or as Boeheim surely would have suggested, the most egregiously erroneous call since James Naismith determined that throwing balls into a peach basket was a healthy indoor recreation during the harsh New England winter.
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Boeheim doesn’t just love to argue, he lives to argue, and in the case of Orange guard Trevor Cooney’s game-saving steal, the argument was beyond dispute. Replay review showed Cooney clutching the ball while his sneaker was separated from the baseline stripe by the length of a ladybug.
But Cooney stayed in bounds, and as officials conferred at the scorer’s table, Gonzaga’s late-season roll appeared to be peril. Then fate intervened in the form of a technicality: Although the call allowing the Zags to keep possession was wrong, it wasn’t eligible for replay review because, well, it wasn’t, and in the improbable event I live to the age of 100, I’ll get there without understanding how replay review works in basketball, or football, or baseball, or hockey.
What I understand is this: Instead of being forced to foul in order to get the ball back, the Zags, trailing by a point, had 11 seconds to execute a half-court offense built around Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis. The front-court duo had accounted for 42 of Gonzaga’s 60 points. Surely one, or both, figured to participate in the most crucial sequence of a game there for the taking.
But Wiltjer didn’t attempt the last shot of the possession, and neither did Sabonis. The shot went to guard Josh Perkins, who hoisted a runner that Syracuse’s Tyler Lydon swatted away.
“I thought I had a good look at it,” Perkins said a few minutes later. “But he blocked it. Taller, longer arms. If the opportunity comes, I’m shooting again. Just credit to him.”
Credit, too, to Perkins. The clock was ticking — four seconds, three seconds, two seconds — and somebody had to step up. Perkins mustered the resolve to do that.
But given the scoring potential of Wiltjer (who finished with 23 points) and Sabonis (who finished with 19), a Perkins’ runner into a lane occupied by tall and long arms was not the first option for the Zags. Nor was it the second option. Had fellow guard Evan McClellan been on the floor, it would not have been the third option.
The doomed possession obscured other factors that contributed to the Bulldogs’ 63-60 defeat. Gonzaga took a nine-point lead with 6:24 remaining and never made another field goal. It committed five late turnovers, and allowed the Orange to secure six offensive rebounds during the last 2 1/2 minutes.
When a No. 11 seed gets within a single shot of competing for a Final Four berth — after that No. 11 seed was required to win three games in a conference tournament just to get into the NCAA Tournament — its salvaging of an up-and-down season must be regarded an achievement.
And if you take into account the salvaging of the up-and-down season was accomplished despite the absence of senior center Przemek Karnowksi, whose back problems this year reduced him to a 7-foot spectator, the Zags’ advancement to the Sweet 16 was nothing short of inspired.
Except that telltale possession in Chicago wasn’t inspired. Gonzaga had no right to retain the ball after Cooney stole it, but was allowed to retain the ball for the final 11 seconds.
Pennies from heaven? No, this was more like the Powerball jackpot from heaven, and the recipients responded with a shot that ranked no better than their third offensive option.
“It was important that we made a stop at the end, because after looking at that picture after the game, it looked like he was not out bounds, so that would have been a tough way to lose,” Boeheim said of the blown call on Cooney’s steal. “I don’t know if they could see that picture or not. I don’t know what happened.”
My suspicion is that Somebody Up There wanted to grant Gonzaga a last chance, and that the rest was up to the beneficiaries of the last chance, who didn’t know what to do with it.
I’m trying to imagine would have been more fun: the Zags taking on a Virginia team overseen by former Washington State coach Tony Bennett, or hearing Jim Boeheim bemoan the latest evidence that he was born a poor, unfortunate soul.
John McGrath: firstname.lastname@example.org