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The best team of Mark Few's Gonzaga tenure still wasn't able to overcome the program's maddening trend of early NCAA tournament exits.
Awarded its first-ever No. 1 seed after a 31-2 regular season that included five wins against Big 12 opponents, Gonzaga narrowly avoided becoming the first victim of a No. 16 seed when it eked out a six-point win against Southern. The Zags weren't so fortunate two days later against ninth-seeded Wichita State, squandering a seven-point lead with six minutes remaining and falling 76-70 to become the first No. 1 seed eliminated.
The key play came with 3:10 left and the Zags trailing by one when Elias Harris inbounded the ball to David Stockton, son of Utah Jazz legend John Stockton. Thinking that he was going to be the one to make the inbound pass, Stockton flat-out walked out of bounds, an ill-timed gaffe that gave Wichita State the ball and enabled Ron Baker to sink a 3-pointer that extended the Shockers' lead to four.
Gonzaga's loss marks the fourth straight season it has been ousted in the round of 32. Since back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances in Few's first two seasons in 2000 and 2001, the Zags have advanced to the Sweet 16 only twice and have never gotten further.
The way the rest of the bracket laid out for Gonzaga surely makes this loss especially heartbreaking. Had the Zags escaped Wichita State, they would have only needed to beat either 12th-seeded Ole Miss or 13th-seeded La Salle to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time since Dan Monson's final season in 1998.
The only reason the Zags were as close as they were to defeating Wichita State was a huge edge on the offensive glass and in free throw attempts. Kelly Olynyk scored 26 points and got to the foul line 14 times by himself. He also had six of the Zags' 20 offensive rebounds.
If there was heartbreak in Spokane on Saturday night, there was jubilation in Wichita.
The Shockers were expected to endure a rebuilding season this year after losing their five leading scorers from a team that lost to VCU last year in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. Coach Gregg Marshall instead managed to reload rather than rebuild, riding a nucleus of forwards Cleanthony Early and Carl Hall and guard Malcolm Armstead to a second-place finish in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Few expected the Shockers to do much damage in the NCAA tournament, but they outclassed Big East power Pittsburgh in the opening round before toppling the Zags two nights later. Early and Baker each had 16 points and the Shockers held Gonzaga to 36 percent shooting to overcome the disadvantage on the boards and at the free throw line.