NCAA TOURNAMENT: Zags out-battle feisty West Virginia 61-58

March 23, 2017

NCAA

Gonzaga players celebrate after beating West Virginia during an NCAA Tournament college basketball regional semifinal game Thursday, March 23, 2017, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

By Jeremy Harness

SAN JOSE – Josh Perkins has a tattoo that stretches across his collarbones, and it reads, “If it ain’t rough, it ain’t right.” That mentality apparently is shared by his Gonzaga teammates, and it has them in the Elite Eight.

To get there, the Bulldogs, the top seed in the West region, fought off a very game West Virginia team that went toe-to-toe with them for 40 minutes, pushing them to their limits with a full-court press that seemed to take them out of their element for much of the game.

With many of his teammates, including star guard Nigel Williams-Goss, struggling from the floor, Cal transfer Jordan Mathews stepped up and made the biggest shot of his team’s historic season. With his team down by one with 59 seconds left, he calmly knocked down a 3-pointer from the left corner, leading the way to a 61-58 win at San Jose’s SAP Center Thursday night in the NCAA Tournament’s round of 16.

“I just let it go; I just didn’t think about it,” Mathews said. “I didn’t see it go in, but I heard it.

“Just being able to play for a Final Four is something you grow up watching. You grow up watching March Madness and Sweet 16 games, and to have that opportunity to be 40 minutes away with this group, with this university, is very special.”

Despite shooting 27 percent from the field, West Virginia still had a chance to win in the final minute. Down by two and with Gonzaga face-guarding Mountaineers guard Jevon Carter, Tarik Phillip had a close look at the basket but watched as his floater bounced off the front of the rim, forcing West Virginia to foul.

Silas Melson made one of two free throws, and from that point, West Virginia turned completely to Carter, who scored 21 points and was the only guy who could make a shot at that point. Gonzaga knew that as well, and Carter was unable to get free for a clean look at a 3-pointer (he was 4-of-7 from that distance until then), missing two wild attempts as time ran out.

“That was a mistake on my behalf,” Carter said. “I should have drove it to the basket, but knowing it was a three-point game, I tried to go for the three, since I’d been hitting (that shot).

“But if I’m in that position again, I’ll take it to the basket.”

The primary reason why the Mountaineers were able to stay in the game was the pressure that they were able to put on Gonzaga. West Virginia won the coveted turnover battle, forcing the Bulldogs into 16 turnovers while committing 13 of their own, and they scored 24 points off those turnovers while Gonzaga converted West Virginia’s turnovers into 12 points.

“You tell me another team in the country who can shoot 26 percent from the field against a No. 1 seed, 21 percent from 3, and still could have, should have won the game,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. “I think that says a lot about what kind of guys we have.”

At the outset, Gonzaga moved the ball very well against that press, which has given the team the nickname of “Press Virginia.” However, the press eventually had a pronounced effect as the game progressed.

The Bulldogs primarily used Williams-Goss, their best scorer, to break the Mountaineer press, but the star guard expended a great deal of energy in the process and was clearly affected by that. Although he grabbed five rebounds and had only one turnover in the first half, he was only 1-for-5 from the floor in the first 20 minutes.

He seemed to have been worn down by it in the second half, committing four more turnovers and going 2-for-10 from the floor for 10 points.

Williams-Goss wasn’t the only one struggling from the floor in the first half, as Gonzaga only shot 38 percent, which allowed West Virginia, which only shot 23 percent itself, to stay in the game.

Mathews made only one of his seven shots in the first half, but he started the second half with the hot hand, nailing a 3-pointer and then converting a four-point play in the first four minutes to give Gonzaga a 41-34 lead.

From that point, the Bulldogs began to go to their big man, Przemek Karnowski, and they eventually opened up an eight-point lead.

However, the Mountaineers refused to go away and were kept in the game by Carter, the junior guard with a smooth shooting stroke to counter his receding hairline and was also tasked with sticking to Williams-Goss on Thursday. He made a pair of 3-pointers of his own before converting a three-point play with nine minutes gone by in the half to cut the deficit to two, eventually drawing the game even.

At that moment, West Virginia had taken a break from the press, but upon re-tying the game, it went right back to it and promptly forced a traveling turnover out of Gonzaga and took the lead.

A 3-pointer by Carter gave West Virginia a three-point lead with 1:47 to go, but Williams-Goss drew a foul on Gonzaga’s ensuing possession and sank both free throws, setting up Mathews’ heroics.

Gonzaga had not been forced into any real adversity until late in the year. The Bulldogs became the nation’s top-ranked team on Jan. 26 and held it for almost an entire month before being upended at home against BYU on Feb. 25.

They had considerable struggles in each of the first two rounds to get to the Sweet Sixteen. In the first round, Gonzaga had to fight off a pesky 16-seed in South Dakota State, which kept the game very close in the first half before wearing down and then watching as the Bulldogs found their stride in the second half en route to a 66-46 win.

Five days ago, Gonzaga started fast and led by as many as 22 points in its second-round matchup with Northwestern, but the Wildcats mounted a furious comeback late in the game, when a turn of events halted Northwestern’s momentum for good.

Gonzaga center Zach Collins clearly reached through the basket to block a Northwestern shot with 4:54 remaining, a basket that would have cut Gonzaga’s lead to three. Northwestern coach Chris Collins hotly protested the non-call and earned a technical for his trouble.

Williams-Goss hit both ensuing free throws, and Northwestern could get no closer in a 79-73 Gonzaga win.

West Virginia, the No. 4 seed in this West Regional, did not have an easy road to this round, either. The Mountaineers withstood a late comeback from 13th-seeded Bucknell to escape with an 86-80 win before holding off a second-half surge by Notre Dame to come away with a 83-71 second-round victory.

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