SALT LAKE CITY — Gonzaga was No. 1, yet never really played like it in the NCAA tournament.
Not in Thursday’s second-round game, when the Zags struggled against 16th-seeded Southern of the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
And not Saturday against No, 9 seed Wichita State, which nearly buried the Bulldogs in the first half.
Now Gonzaga’s gone, its resume of 15 straight NCAA appearances and 32 wins meaning little after being knocked out of the West Regional 76-70 by a barrage of Wichita State 3-pointers.
“I don’t even know what’s going through my head right now,” Elias Harris said. “It’s just over now and it’s sad. It hurts, but that’s life I guess.”
The suddenness of how it came crashing down caught teammate Michael Hart.
“We’ll look back and savor this year and cherish it,” he said. “But it’s pretty rough right now because we definitely came up short of where we were looking for.”
Cleanthony Early and Ron Baker scored 16 points apiece and the Shockers hit five straight 3-pointers late for the win.
Gonzaga became the first top seed to be eliminated this year, giving all the Zags doubters an I-told-you-so moment.
Coach Mark Few said the Zags are what they are.
“We’re not overly athletic,” he said. “We’re based on just playing together and we have a high level of skill, good size and play hard and play pretty efficient.
“Wichita State is a hot team right now.”
The Shockers (28-8), whose motto is “play angry,” advanced to the Round of 16 for the first time since 2006. They face the winner of Sunday’s game between La Salle and Ole Miss.
Gonzaga loses Harris and Hart. But Kelly Olynyk (26 points) is only a junior and Kevin Pangos (19 points) a sophomore as is top perimeter defender Gary Bell Jr., who played only 21 minutes because of a foot injury.
Few preferred to look at the bright spots.
“To have the best season in the history of basketball at our school and kind of capture the attention of a nation, it was one hell of a ride,” he said. “We had a lot of fun.”
The Zags also had their share of detractors.
While Gonzaga held the top spot in the AP Top 25 over the final weeks of the season, skeptics thought of the Bulldogs as a soft No. 1 seed that benefited from a relatively easy schedule in the West Coast Conference while other top contenders were getting banged around in the power conferences.
One thing is certain: Wichita State was not intimidated.
“They never quit,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “You know we got the big lead, Gonzaga makes a great run as a No. 1 team in the country would, and these guys dig down.”
Shockers, for sure.
They showed their grit after Gonzaga’s 12-0 run gave the Bulldogs a 49-41 lead with 11:53 left. Back-to-back 3-pointers by Pangos and Hart started it, Olynyk hit a jumper then a pair of free throws, and Pangos capped it with a steal and fast-break layup.
But Wichita State outscored the Zags 35-21 from there.
The string of five straight 3s began when Tekele Cotton spotted up with 6:05 remaining and hit a shot that cut Wichita State’s seven-point deficit to four.
It ended at the 1:28 mark when Fred VanVleet, dribbling the ball between his legs, nearly lost it, but gathered himself and threw one up with 1 second left on the shot clock. It went in, the Shockers were ahead 70-65 and the rest of the game was a free-throw-shooting contest.
“I was just disappointed that with 1 second left that we even let him get a 3 off,” Few said. “That was a mental error on our part.”
The Shockers, who made just 2 of 20 3-pointers in their 18-point win over Pitt on Thursday, shot 50 percent from beyond the arc and 50 percent overall.
“They deserve a ton of credit,” Few said. “It’s the first time in a while someone made 50 percent on us, and to bang in 14 3s (overall) is pretty amazing.”
Gonzaga’s 39-30 rebounding edge couldn’t make up for 36 percent shooting.
“Man it means a lot,” Shockers senior forward Carl Hall said. “It means a lot to this program and our fans deserve this.”
Gonzaga, meanwhile, will have to keep trying.
“These guys, I told them after the game, had an unbelievable year, one for the ages,” Few said.