By Matt Keller
West Virginia had its chances.
Oh, did it ever.
But a cold shooting effort combined with the inability to make key plays late cost the Mountaineers a trip to the school’s fourth Elite Eight, as top-seed Gonzaga topped WVU 61-58 in the Sweet 16 in San Jose last Thursday.
It wasn’t because of a lack of defense. West Virginia couldn’t have asked much more at that end. It held the nation’s most efficient offensive team to its lowest point total of the season, and actually held a 58-55 lead after Jevon Carter hit a three-pointer with 1:47 left. But much like major stretches of the game, the Mountaineers failed to score the remainder of the way as the Zags closed with a 6-0 run.
That still left the Mountaineers – who missed three shots including a pair of potential lay-ins over the final 90 seconds – with a chance to tie late. But Carter misfired on a pair of threes, and Daxter Miles’ desperation heave from 25 feet fall well short as time expired and Gonzaga moved on to its third Elite Eight all time and second in three seasons.
“That was a mistake,” said Carter of WVU’s final possession. “I knew they had a lot of guys at the top. 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. But if I’m in that position again, I’ll take it to the basket.”
For West Virginia, which finished 28-9 and with its third-highest win total in program history, it leaves a feeling of what-if. There were certainly chances, primarily one to extend the lead late when Miles missed two free throws as WVU nursed a 58-57 advantage with 1:08 left. But in a game with a razor-thin margin for error, there were more than enough to open the proverbial door for the Bulldogs. A Tarik Phillip foul far from the bucket. The missed point-blank chances, a chance for a put-back bucket by Nate Adrian that was blocked from behind.
“We’ve been dealing with it all year. Still can’t shoot 16-for-60,” said Adrian, who had just six points to go with five rebounds as foul trouble and a nagging shoulder injury suffered in the Big 12 quarterfinal against Texas affected his shooting accuracy.
And that was it in a nutshell. WVU amassed edges in rebounds, offensive rebounds, total field goals attempted, points off turnovers and second-chance points. It held Gonzaga to just 40.9 percent shooting, 11 points below the Zags’ season average. But West Virginia never made shots when needed, and thus will exit in the round of 16 for the second time in three seasons.
“We had shots, we just didn’t make them,” WVU head coach Bob Huggins said after leading his team to its fourth Sweet 16 in his 10 years at his alma mater. “Their size bothers everybody around the rim. When you’re driving at the goal and you run into a 7-foot-1, 300-and-whatever-he-is, it’s hard to score. And then we just didn’t make shots that we normally make.”
It appeared in stretches as though West Virginia was going to combine mounting Gonzaga foul trouble with its tenacious play to begin to outmuscle and outhustle the Zags. But WVU just never had consistent enough scoring, as Carter’s 21 points led a team that wasn’t able to get any other player into double figures. That hasn’t been the case all season, as the Mountaineers enjoyed balanced scoring throughout, and had utilized the multiple threats to stress defenses.
Credit Gonzaga for solid man-to-man defense and the ability to mix in a zone late that pushed West Virginia away from the bucket. A pair of threes, one each from Carter and Miles, were the only points WVU managed over the final 5:56 of play. Even for an incredible defensive club, that was too much to ask against a top-shelf opponent.
“That was just an absolute war,” said Gonzaga head coach Mark Few, whose team improved to 35-1 after the Sweet 16 win. “Rock fight. However you want to describe it. I mean, those are two really, really tough teams, two really physical teams that laid it out there on the line. And there were big shots being made right and left and fortunately we made the two big plays at the end.
“And all year we’ve been banking on our defense, our defense, our defense,” added Few. “Our defense stepped up and got it done there at the end. So we are absolutely elated to continue to be playing, and we’re 40 minutes away from a Final Four, which was something we set our sights on at the start of the year.”
The loss was just the second in time in 62 games that West Virginia has held an opponent below 69 points and lost. The 61 points for Gonzaga tied for its season low, and the first half marked just the fourth time this season the Zags have been held to 30 points or less in a half.
“You tell me another team in the country who can shoot 26 percent from the field against a No. 1 seed, 21 percent from three and still could have, should have won the game,” Huggins said. “I think that says a lot about what kind of guys we have.”
West Virginia finished with 20 offensive rebounds, tied for their second-most this season. WVU’s 16 field goals tied for the fewest shots made in a game this season and the lowest overall shooting percentage; the Mountaineers shot 16-for-60 against Kansas State on March 10. It is the second-lowest shooting percentage for any Gonzaga foe this season.
The teams were tied 30-30 at the break as neither team hit a shot over the final three minutes. West Virginia managed just seven total field goals and missed 10-of-11 three-pointers in the first half, but set the tone by disrupting the Zags offense in limiting the Bulldogs to just 37.5 percent shooting. Gonzaga took just five threes, missing four, and the Mountaineers built a 25-17 edge in rebounding by the half.
“If you’ve ever played basketball, then you always dream of going to the Final Four and winning the national championship playing at this stage,” said Carter, who finished with a game-high 21 points. “And to know you were so close and you gave everything you had and to come up short, it hurts.”