The latest in a long line of impressive basketball seasons at Gonzaga will forever be marred by memories of second-half collapses tied to an unsightly collection of turnovers and missed shots at crunch time.
Syracuse eliminated Gonzaga from the NCAA tournament Friday night when the Bulldogs blew a nine-point lead in the final six minutes by going 0-for-7 from the field and committing four of their 17 turnovers.
Similar maladies cost the Bulldogs again and again earlier in the season. However, Gonzaga blossomed late to win seven consecutive games before a second straight trip to the Elite Eight disappeared into the Chicago night air in a 63-60 loss at the United Center.
Kyle Wiltjer ripped holes in Syracuse’s legendary 2-3 zone for 27 minutes, then went scoreless the rest of the way. Wiltjer scored 15 of Gonzaga’s 29 first-half points to lift the Bulldogs to a one-point lead at the half. Fellow forward Domantas Sabonis overcame double-teams to score 15 of Gonzaga’s 31 second-half points.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, rendering his best Yogi Berra impersonation after the game, told CBS television, “To overcome those guys, it says a lot about these guys.”
“These guys” included Syracuse freshman forward Tyler Lydon. His sixth blocked shot of the night foiled a Josh Perkins floater in the lane that would have pushed Gonzaga ahead with 1.6 seconds to go, and Lydon then knocked down two free throws for the game’s final points. A length-of-the-court desperation heave by Sabonis was well off the mark.
Boeheim, the mastermind behind Syracuse’s fabled zone defense, took zero credit for Lydon’s block on Perkins.
“We were worried about Wiltjer,” Boeheim said. “We’re really not worried about that drive (Perkins’ floater). I don’t know why Tyler even came up there, but I’m glad he did.”
Gonzaga coach Mark Few said Perkins “made a nice move to get into the lane, shot what I thought was a pretty good floater, and then the kid (Lydon) made a heck of a play.”
Few repeatedly complimented his players for their determined play at season’s end. Nothing changed after the final game when he spoke at a press conference.
“These guys showed us the most toughness, the most courage I’ve ever seen a team show in the 18 years I’ve been at GU,” said Few, who was apparently referring to an 18-year run of NCAA appearances that began with Few’s final season as an assistant coach.
“Just amazing,” Few continued, “from where we were, to get to this point, ahead in a Sweet 16 game down the stretch. I’ve never had a team go through that and show that much courage and that much perseverance and toughness. Obviously it hurts, but we’re really, really proud.”
Sabonis polished off one of the greatest sophomore seasons in Gonzaga history by hauling down 17 rebounds. He’s projected to go in the first round of the NBA draft if he opts to turn pro this year.
“Sabonis,” Boeheim said, “is a tremendous player.”
Senior point guard Michael Gbinije led Syracuse with 20 points despite hitting 8 of 23 shots.
“He just willed us to this win,” Boeheim said. “I mean, we didn’t have much going on offense today.”
Three other Syracuse players scored nine or more points. Wiltjer and Sabonis, the only Zags with more than eight points, combined for 42 of Gonzaga’s 60 points.
“The most amazing year I’ve seen two guys deliver,” Few said.
“Those two guys are as good as anybody that we’ve seen all year,” Boeheim said.
Wiltjer, a fifth-year senior from Portland, led Gonzaga in scoring both seasons after transferring from Kentucky.
“He’s like a brother to me ever since I came,” Sabonis said. “Since Day One he had my back, he showed me around. I came from Europe and he’s been there always.
“Having him on the court with me is great. It gives the team a lot of advantages. He opens the court for me. I couldn’t have done what I done this season without him.”
The Bulldogs (28-8), the 10th seed in the Midwest Division, buried five of their first seven 3-pointers to take a 21-10 lead against the 11th-seeded Orange (22-13). Gonzaga outshot Syracuse 43.6-36.1 percent and outrebounded the Orange 37-33, but Syracuse made 10 more free throws (14) and had eight fewer turnovers (nine).
“We put our heart and soul in it,” Wiltjer said.
Syracuse scored the final six points of the first half and the first six points of the second half to go ahead 34-29. Wiltjer and Sabonis were quick to respond, and Gonzaga nursed small leads most of the second half before a packed house of 21,490.
Syracuse hurt Gonzaga late with a full-court press and offensive rebounding. TV replays indicated the Bulldogs received a break on an out-of-bounds call against the Orange that preceded Lydon’s block.
Top-seeded Virginia (29-7), led by former Washington State coach Tony Bennett, battles Syracuse for a Final Four berth on Sunday at the United Center (3:09 p.m., TBS).