John McGrath

John McGrath: Kyle Wiltjer’s wilting layup one born from nightmares

In October, liberated from the scrutiny of television cameras, Kyle Wiltjer set what is believed to be the world record for the longest behind-the-back basket. He drained a shot from half-court in a mostly empty gym.

Twice.

Sunday afternoon, with a chance to tie the most important game in Gonzaga basketball history, Wiltjer attempted a point-blank shot that presented the approximate degree of difficulty of bouncing a ball off a wall.

He missed.

Wiltjer is as talented a shooter who has ever worn a Zags uniform, and when Przemek Karnowski found him underneath the basket for an elementary layup late in the second half, Gonzaga appeared certain to pull even in its seesaw South Regional championship game against Duke.

But with a Final Four bid at stake, there is no such thing as an elementary layup. Distracted by the imminent presence of 6-foot-10 Duke center Jahlil Okafor, Wiltjer hurried his release and the ball skipped over the rim, deflating a Gonzaga team left to wonder how its 66-52 defeat might have been different if not for the layup attempt the Zags’ senior can make 100 out of 100 times. Blindfolded.

Gonzaga trailed, 53-51, when the ball left Wiltjer’s fingers. After Okafor hauled in the rebound, Duke went on a 13-1 run that found the Zags shooting 0 for 4, with two turnovers.

Although Wiltjer’s miss clearly changed the momentum, it’s a wonder the game was as close as it was. Point guard Kevin Pangos had more turnovers than field goals. Between Pangos and Kentridge grad Gary Bell Jr., the Zags’ reliable backcourt staples went 1 for 7 behind the 3-point line, which explains why they combined to score nine points.

Duke got seeded No. 1 for a reason. The Blue Devils are worthy of advancing to the Final Four for the 16th time, but a team whose bench is held scoreless in a regional final is a team that will be challenged to survive next weekend.

In other words, the Devils are not to be confused with the Kentucky Wildcats. Notre Dame needed a virtually flawless effort to take UK to the limit Saturday.

Flawlessness wasn’t necessary against Duke, but a sense that every possession is precious sure was. The Zags turned the ball over 13 times, the Devils turned it over three times — and the third turnover was a mercy-killing violation of the shot clock in the final seconds.

Duke converted those 13 turnovers into 17 points, while Gonzaga scored two points off turnovers: A 15-point differential in a game decided by 14 points. This is not the stuff of trigonometry.

Absent two interlopers with compelling story lines — Gonzaga was attempting to advance to its first Final Four, and Notre Dame, one year removed from a 17-loss season, was on a magical roll — the only intrigue left in the tournament belongs to Kentucky.

Without the Wildcats’ 38-0 record, a Kentucky-

Wisconsin-Duke-Michigan State Final Four looms as three games of Haven’t We Seen This Before? Ah, but there’s the preservation of the perfect record, which compelled enough viewers to tune in Saturday that Kentucky-Notre Dame drew ratings unsurpassed for a college basketball game televised on cable.

A “game” is one way to describe these broadcasts. Another is: “Brief bursts of action in which opponents compete with a round ball interrupted, every two or three minutes, by a succession of variously abstract commercials.”

I laugh at the ads featuring Clyde Drexler, Dr. J, Shaq and Christian Laettner, but after seeing the quartet 300 times since Friday, I still don’t know what they’re endorsing.

The big lie of the tournament? It’s when the play-by-play announcer promises: “We’ll be right back.”

No, you won’t be right back. Stop it.

Amid the relentless flurry of commercial breaks Sunday, Gonzaga came within a layup of tying Duke, setting up a fantastic finish that was resolved, well, not so fantastically.

The dirty little secret of March Madness — besides, I mean, the hokum of “being right back” whenever a time out is called — is how it’s so arbitrarily cruel.

Kyle Wiltjer took the ball on the baseline and put up a bank-shot layup he can make with his eyes closed. He’ll see it again and again in his sleep.

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