SALT LAKE CITY – Elias Harris, a burly mass of muscle who looks like he could bring a whole lot of whip-ass to any occasion that required such a service, sat teary-eyed before a bunch of strangers who, essentially, had just one question: Why?
Why did the Gonzaga Bulldogs, ranked No. 1 in the land, fail so miserably again and again and again at crunch time Saturday night against Wichita State?
“I don’t even know what’s going through my head right now,” Harris said softly, his eyes glazed with tears. “It is what it is.
“It was a heck of a year. It’s just over now, and it’s sad. It hurts, but that’s life, I guess.”
Life, a famous philosopher once said, is a bitch. One hopes Gonzaga’s players have just endured the worst experience of their lives, but more trying times almost certainly await.
On Saturday night, however, tucked away in the bowels of an arena that was filled with joy and anguish and cheers and boos just a half hour earlier, Harris and his teammates were trying to come to grips with the fact that a dream had been ripped from their hearts forever.
“We had a great year,” said Mike Hart, the team’s other senior starter besides Harris. “We’ll look back and savor this year and cherish it and understand how great it was.
“But it’s pretty rough right now, because we definitely came up short of what we were looking for.”
The Bulldogs were not the best team in the country this season – sorry, pollsters — but they deserved to be in the discussion. Besides, just about anything can happen in this day and age of parity in college basketball.
The Bulldogs proved that in their tournament debut Thursday, when they very nearly became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed.
Everyone agreed that Southern played quite well that day, but . . . c’mon. SOUTHERN? Is that a university or a direction? No way the nation’s top-ranked team should be sweating bullets against Southern.
Wichita State, expertly coached by a man (Gregg Marshall) whom insiders have long regarded as one of college basketball’s best, represented an even greater challenge for the Bulldogs. They were bigger, stronger, deeper, more experienced than Southern.
The Shockers looked the part when they went on a 16-2 run midway through the first half. Gonzaga, one of the nation’s top offensive teams – according to the stats, anyway – produced nothing but four free throws for 7½ minutes.
“They defended us well,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.
Yes, but not THAT well. Harris, for the second straight game, appeared to be mired in quicksand. He lacked explosiveness, and the relatively few shots he attempted that were not swatted away usually missed their target.
Still, the Zags trailed by just five at the break, then put together a dazzling stretch at both ends of the floor to regain the lead in the second half. They led by eight with less than 12 minutes to go.
Then . . . nothing. Well, nothing good for the Zags at crunch time, when the Shockers couldn’t miss and the Bulldogs couldn’t miss every opportunity to fall apart.
A bad pass here, a bad shot there, a bad turnover, a bad inbounds play (David Stockton stepped on the line while passing the ball inbounds after a basket, for goodness sake). Meanwhile, the Shockers – 2-for-20 on 3-pointers two days earlier against Pittsburgh – suddenly turned into so many Reggie Millers from beyond the arc.
The 26 points and nine rebounds of Kelly Olynyk were wasted in what almost certainly will be his final college game (the projected first-rounder insisted afterwards that he’s yet to decide whether he will enter the NBA draft). The defense that Few hailed as the best in school history yielded 14 treys in 28 attempts to a team that had been shooting a paltry 33 percent for the year from beyond the arc.
Hart said the Bulldogs were “just being a little lazy” on defense. Few said the Bulldogs “lost track of shooters.” Harris said the 14 3-pointers “killed us.”
Certainly the Bulldogs suffered when Gary Bell Jr., the team’s best perimeter defender, sat out most of the second half with a foot injury. But a team that raved about its depth was outscored 34-7 in bench points. The late 3-pointers that pronounced Gonzaga dead on arrival were delivered by a junior college transfer (Cleanthony Early) who turned down Washington State, a redshirt freshman (Ron Baker) who wears a mop for a hairdo and a true freshman (Fred VanVleet) who plays as if lives are at stake every time the light switch flicks on in a gym.
“He wants to beat you,” Marshall said of VanVleet. “He got angry with my daughter Maggie one time when she was his partner in shuffleboard: ‘Maggie, you got to do better.’”
The same can be said of the Bulldogs at NCAA tournaments. Few finally gave his public stamp of approval to the widely held belief that this was the best team in Gonzaga history (“and we have a pretty nice history”), but going 1-1 in the tournament and bowing out in the round of 32 is unacceptable. There’s a reason Gonzaga was seeded first and Wichita State ninth in the West Region.
For all the remarkable accomplishments of Few’s 14-year career as head coach of the Bulldogs – not the least of which are 14 tickets punched at the Big Dance — none of his teams have made it past the Sweet 16. This year’s Bulldogs had the best record (32-3) and longest active winning streak (15 games) in the nation, but their season ended with a loss to the second-best team from the Missouri Valley Conference.