A brilliant season of Gonzaga basketball came to a rather ugly end Sunday afternoon in Houston, one win shy of the Final Four. Anyone stunned by this development has a shorter memory than Roger Clemens under oath.
No team from the Pacific Northwest has reached the Final Four since Oregon State in 1963. No team from the state of Washington has reached the Final Four since Seattle University in 1958. And no team from the Northwest has won the national championship since the Oregon Webfoots – yes, Webfoots — won the inaugural NCAA tournament in 1939.
How long ago was 1939? Well, it was just two years earlier that the NCAA dropped a rule that mandated jump balls at center court after every field goal. It took another nine years before coaches were allowed to speak to players during timeouts. And Oregon’s national champions were nicknamed the “Tall Firs” because they had a 6-foot-8 player and – egad! – three others who stood 6-4.
Sunday, Gonzaga dressed only three scholarship players who are SHORTER than 6-4. The Bulldogs still managed to come up short of any number of offensive standards in which they rank among the nation’s best. They lost 66-52, a season low for points. Gonzaga was averaging 79.4 points per game (seventh in the nation), and their 52.2 field-goal shooting percentage ranked first.
“Duke played great defense,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.
“Our defense the last 16 minutes was spectacular,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
The Bulldogs trailed 31-26 at the half after getting outscored 4-0 in the final 3 minutes, 50 seconds. A 7-0 run pushed Gonzaga ahead 38-34 with 16:21 left in the second half, but Duke scored the next nine points, then outscored the Bulldogs 13-1 after Gonzaga star Kyle Wiltjer muffed a wide-open layin that would have tied the game at 53 with 4:50 left to play.
“He would make that that thing 499 times out of 500,” Few said. “Just a fluke.”
It was certainly no fluke that fourth-ranked Duke (33-4), the No. 1 seed in the South Region, beat a second-seeded Gonzaga squad that was playing in the Elite Eight for just the second time in school history. Krzyzewski has won more games overall and more NCAA tournament games than any coach in Division I history. He’s now tied with legendary UCLA coach John Wooden for the most Final Four appearances with 12.
“I’m proud of our guys because we beat a hell of a team,” Krzyzewski said.
Gonzaga apologists should spare everyone a sad tale about the difficulties of shooting in a huge football stadium. Duke, after all, sank 8 of 19 from beyond the arc. Gonzaga had a 44.0-37.5 advantage in field-goal shooting percentage despite a 2-for-10 effort on 3-pointers at Houston’s NRG Stadium.
Simply put, the seventh-ranked Bulldogs (35-3) failed to make shots or get stops when they needed to most. Didn’t grab loose balls or corral rebounds when they needed to most. Didn’t do the little things or cause Duke to do bad things when they needed to most. An 11-2 deficit in turnovers in the first 28 minutes did not help one bit.
“They threw a lot of different defenses at us,” Wiltjer said after scoring just three of his team-high 16 points after halftime. “They denied (players the ball), did a lot of switching. Kind of got us out of our rhythm.”
Pangos, who said scrappy defender Quinn Cook “was attached to me,” finished his stellar career with four points and no assists. He sank just 2 of 8 shots. Gary Bell Jr., a four-year starting guard like Pangos, had five points on 2-for-6 shooting. Center Przemek Karnowski, who sat out most of the first half with two fouls, recorded four points and five rebounds. Byron Wesley scored 10 points.
Texas natives Justise Winslow of Houston and Matt Jones of DeSoto led Duke with 16 points apiece. Tyus Jones added 15, Cook scored 10 and national player of the year candidate Jahil Okafor pitched in with nine points and eight rebounds. Okafor, Winslow and Tyus Jones are freshmen starters.
Gonzaga loses three seniors, starting guards Pangos, Bell and Wesley, off a team that many believe is the greatest in Bulldogs history. Leading scorer Wiltjer and leading rebounders Domantas Sabonis and Karnowski are key returners, provided they don’t turn pro.
Sabonis, the only one of the three drawing strong interest from the NBA, has said he is definitely coming back for his sophomore season. Pangos, who figures to make good money overseas if he doesn’t stick in the NBA, leaves Gonzaga with far more good memories than bad about his career and his senior season.
“The best team I’ve played on talent-wise,” Pangos said, “and the best of group of guys and the best coaching staff. We accomplished a lot and obviously wanted to make it to the Final Four, but we can look back and be pretty happy with what we’ve been able to do. We just fell a little short.”
In more ways than one, Kevin. In more ways than one.