Three months after it happened, it still seems fairly surreal: 2-3-3-3-2-2-3-3-2.
No, it’s not the scorecard from the front nine of a challenging mini-golf course or some new version of binary. It’s what Wichita State scored on Gonzaga over the course of nine pivotal possessions down the stretch of their Round of 32 NCAA tournament encounter. Nine possessions that unfairly painted the best Zags team ever as chokers. Nine nearly perfect possessions that helped launch the Shockers to the Final Four.
On paper, the No. 1 team in the nation getting knocked out of the NCAA tournament by the second-place team in the Missouri Valley should have Farokhmanesh-level credibility. But since it was Gonzaga that was the top-ranked team, much of the post-game narrative was around the magnitude of the Bulldogs’ latest March capitulation. What was glossed over was how incredibly Wichita State played in the final eight minutes of the game. One minute, Gonzaga was up six and crushing the Shockers on the glass. The next, the Shockers were celebrating and Gonzaga was trying to figure out what hit it.
What hit the Zags was one of the best stretches of offense in any game last season.
According to college hoops stats guru Ken Pomeroy, there were fewer than 65 instances in the more than 5,600 games played last season where a team scored 23 points or more in a sequence of nine consecutive possessions. Campbell stands alone at the top with 25 points in a nine-possession span against VMI in a Big South conference game, although the Camels were aided by two technical fouls called on VMI (adding two extra points from the four free throws). One of the teams in this group, ironically, is Gonzaga, which scored 23 in nine first-half possessions against Pacific on Dec. 1.
None of those explosions happened on a stage like this, to an opponent like this, though. So what happened to change a game the Bulldogs seemed to have fairly well in control? Here’s a rundown, including the recall of Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall and guard Ron Baker, who had a huge role in the comeback.
When the under-eight timeout came with 7:55 left and Wichita State down by five, with Gonzaga’s Kelly Olynyk preparing to shoot a pair of free throws after the break, Marshall didn’t like what he was seeing. The Shockers' body language coming off the floor was unusually poor and heads were hanging. Confidence, a strong positive trait for the Shockers all season, was flagging. The Bulldogs, who had surged into the lead thanks to a 12-0 run a few minutes earlier, were looking comfortable.
"So in the huddle," Marshall said, "I asked all of them, 'If I told you Oct. 15, Round of 32, No. 1 team in the nation, you’re down [five], would you take it? Would you have taken it?' And every one of them said, "Yeah, hell, sure we’d have taken that.'
"Then, and I may be making too much of this after the fact, but when they were leaving the huddle, Ron Baker looked at me and said, 'I got this.'"
Baker doesn’t recall actually speaking during the huddle or after it broke, but he does recall feeling like Marshall was focusing his message on him specifically.
"I felt like he was addressing me more than anyone else on the bench," Baker said. "... I always make really good eye contact [with the coaches in timeout huddles] and he was looking at me a lot more than anyone else."
When the game resumed, Cleanthony Early made a layup to cut the lead to four. After Kevin Pangos made a three for Gonzaga, Tekele Cotton answered for the Shockers with a three-ball of his own. That shot came from a player who in late January was 3-for-23 for the season from behind the arc. He was such a non-threat from deep at that point that Marshall, seeing Cotton’s defenders sloughing off into the paint when he had the ball behind the arc, told Cotton he "should be embarrassed" by the way he was being defended. Cotton responded by making 16 of his last 33 threes coming into the Gonzaga game.
(Along with Baker's return from injury after missing 21 games, Cotton’s turnaround made Wichita State a much more capable perimeter shooting team than they appeared on paper -- even after a 2-for-20 clankfest from the arc against Pitt two days earlier. That was despite them missing their best shooter, Evan Wissel, who was lost for the season in December to a broken finger.)
Pangos immediately came down and made another three and it was a seven-point Zags lead again. Early, not a great percentage shooter but not shy from the arc, nailed his own triple and it was back to four. After an Olynyk layup attempt was blocked, Baker went to work. First, he received a kickout from Early and drilled a contested three. After Carl Hall had hit a jumper on Wichita State’s next possession, Baker stepped up to make two free throws to give the Shockers back the lead. After a defensive stop, Baker then ripped a catch-and-shoot three from the right corner to put the Shockers up by four, 67-63.
"I remember Fred [Van Vleet] went to the right side at the top of the key," Baker said. "I was being guarded by [Kevin] Pangos and I saw he was pretty far in the gap. I knew when Fred passed it that I could catch and shoot. The pass was right in my [shooting] pocket."
Marshall, squatting in front of the Wichita State bench opposite from where Baker made the catch, liked what he saw instantly.
"I’ve never seen a player of mine catch and shoot so quickly," Marshall said. "When he let it go, it looked so nice. It was cash. So pure, and then BAM!"
Gonzaga wasn’t done yet, though, parlaying two offensive rebounds on the next possession into an Olynyk bucket that made it a two-point game again. Down came the Shockers once again and Van Vleet, after fumbling the ball off the dribble beyond the top of the key on the left wing, tracked it down, took one steadying dribble, and then released a 24-foot rainbow that slipped smoothly through the net.
"He just sized [David Stockton] up and pulled," Marshall said of Van Vleet’s dagger. "After it went in, Fred turned to the bench and held the pose a little bit. They were playing with so much confidence. When that shot went in, I turned to my assistant coach and said ‘I think we’re going to win this game. I think we’ve got this.'"
One exchange of possessions later, they did have it. After Olynyk missed again, the Shockers missed their only shot in this game-changing run, but they grabbed the rebound and Van Vleet was fouled with 0:39 left. He made them both, and that was the ballgame.
Nine possessions. 23 points. A six-point deficit turned into a seven-point lead in just over seven minutes. The opponent, the top-ranked team in the land, had scored 1.25 points per possession during the surge, a figure that would have led Division I for the season. The Zags didn’t choke. They were beaten by one of the greatest stretches of clutch offense we’ll ever see.