BY Howie Stalwick 10:47PM 03/25/2016

Gonzaga implodes late, ousted by Syracuse 63-60

Zags go cold, then clumsy, in a late collapse against Syracuse’s fabled 2-3 zone. Coach Mark Few praised the Bulldogs’ courage, but the 11th-seeded Zags had the game in hand before losing their grip.

Kyle Wiltjer went scoreless over the final 13 minutes. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest file

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).


YourThoughts

  • bevdog

    Until Mark Few installs a full court press to his coaching style the Zags will continue to come up short when playing against elite better coached teams who do.. Sad but true.

    • art thiel

      That requires good defensive guards, which he lacked this year.

      • bevdog

        Correct analysis for Gonzaga’s perenial problem/excuse.
        Were Goodrich and Hazzard great defenders under John Wooden? If implemented, regardless of the degree of separation as it
        relates to talent, the strategy results in extra very valuable points.

        relates to talent, implementing this
        defensive strategy
        works whether resulting in 2 extra buckets, 4 or 10.

    • Comrade Suge

      Gonzaga doesn’t have a lot of depth or athleticism to pull off such a scheme.

      • Rj Smith

        I really think Mark Few would be outstanding at Washington. He could bring in the type of 4 year players he gets at Gonzaga, while also getting the 4 & 5 stars recruits Washington gets on occasion. Gonzaga lacks star power & Washington doesn’t really have talented 4 year players.

  • Buggy White

    How does Syracuse shoot three times as many free throws as Gonzaga? Apparently the refs missed Sabonis getting mugged in the key over and over again.

    • rosetta_stoned

      Did the refs blow a nine-point lead with six minutes to play, as well?

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      • art thiel

        Blown-lead flu is contagious throughout the bracket.

    • Comrade Suge

      Here’s the reason: Syracuse was driving to the basket more while Gonzaga was taking more jumpers. You tend to get fouled more when you go to the basket.

  • 1coolguy

    It’s always tough to see a team beat itself. This was a classic, by-the-book example.

  • coug73

    I thought Sabonis played well while being swarmed and hack a lot. He deserved more trips to the line. Sad end to the game.

    • Comrade Suge

      Syracuse players were being hacked too, the refs were letting a lot goal.