SAN JOSE, Calif. — Thoughts from Gonzaga's 61–58 win over West Virginia in the Sweet 16 of the West Regional, a game that Zags coach Mark Few accurately described as "an absolute war" and a "rock fight":
1. Gonzaga is on the brink of the Final Four because its defense is for real. It came into this game ranked No. 1 in the nation in defensive efficiency, but to Vegas and most of the punditry, that ranking—even though it was schedule-adjusted—seemed to be accompanied by an asterisk. Was too much of it based on suffocating hapless West Coast Conference teams that couldn't match the Zags' size or depth?
On Thursday, Gonzaga acquitted itself by holding West Virginia to 26.7% shooting and 0.853 points per possession, its second-worst performance of the season. The focus coming into the game was the Mountaineers' press, but the Zags put on a halfcourt clinic, switching between man and a 2-3 zone. And if Gonzaga goes on to win the national title, the two defensive plays it made in the game's final 70 seconds will be essential to include in the highlight reel.
The first was part of a wild sequence—every sequence in this game was wild, but this one was particularly ridiculous—with 1:08 left. Daxter Miles Jr., the Mountaineers junior guard who was last seen on this stage in 2015, guaranteeing a win over undefeated and No. 1-ranked Kentucky, went to the foul line with a chance to extend West Virginia's 58–57 lead.
Miles missed both, with the rebound falling into the hands of Zags point guard Nigel Williams-Goss—who promptly had it taken away in a sneak-attack by West Virginia forward Nathan Adrien. Adrien turned rimward, hoping to drop in a layup over Williams-Goss, when Gonzaga two-guard Josh Perkins flew into the picture, superhero-like, took an exaggerated swing at the ball, and stuffed Adrien's shot.
To call Perkins an unlikely blocker would be a gross understatement. The 6'3" sophomore had three blocks the entire regular season. His failed block attempts—the big swings—are the subject of mockery within the Gonzaga program.
"It's an inside joke that we've had in the locker room for three years," Perkins says, "that I always take big swings like that because I want the big-time block.
"I was probably 0 for 15 before that. This is the first time it actually paid off."
That block ended up in the hands of Williams-Goss, who pushed it upcourt, then found senior Jordan Mathews with a cross-court pass to the left wing … and Mathews' three put the Zags up, 61–58.
That set the stage for the second, huge defensive stop, with West Virginia in possession of the ball with 37 seconds left, down three. Backup combo guard Silas Melson was supposed to match up with Mountaineers star Jevon Carter, who already had a game-high 21 points, and was the long-range shooter keeping them alive down the stretch. "I was going to guard him," Melson says, "and then [Williams-Goss] said no, move—I'm gonna take him. … It takes big nuts for somebody to step up and be like, 'Yo, I'm locking this dude up'."
Williams-Goss, whom Carter had gotten the best of for most of the night, locked in as Carter brought the ball toward the three-point line, refusing to give him any space for a clean, pull-up three. Carter took what seemed like 50 dribbles, off screens, back and forth on the perimeter, launched a contested three with 21 seconds left; then another, following an offensive rebound with 16 seconds left; and, following yet another offensive board, couldn't get free for a final look before the buzzer. It was 37 seconds of incredible D, by the No. 1 defense in the country, and it now has Gonzaga within 40 minutes of the Final Four.
2. This—and not Arizona or Xavier—was the matchup that scared me most for Gonzaga (and it was one their coaches were extremely worried about, too). There was simply no template for it in the Zags' previous 35 games. As Melson put it, "We're not used to playing teams like West Virginia." There was no one on the Zags' non-conference schedule, much less its WCC schedule, that applied heat like the Mountaineers did. Gonzaga's experience getting mildly pressed by Santa Clara was no real prep; neither was its scout team fouling its starters like mad for multiple days in practice this week. Things got very scary and an upset was very real, as Williams-Goss committed five turnovers, and Gonzaga as a team committed 16, for a TO% of 23.2—its third-highest rate of the season. But the Zags offered proof that they could find a way to win a game in which they didn't dictate the style or the tempo, and a game that was their grittiest of the season. "I can tell you one thing," Melson says, "We're just as tough as any team in the country, and we're not gonna lay down just because someone presses us all game."
3. Mathews' long-range confidence is key for the Zags' ability to keep this national title run going. He started the game 0 for 4 from three-point land, but finished 3 for 8, and the trey the senior transfer from Cal hit with 59 seconds left was the biggest shot of his life. He asked for it, too, turning to Perkins and Williams-Goss during a replay-review stoppage in the final two minutes and telling them, "If you find me in the corner, I'm going to knock it down."
Down the stretch, Few had been subbing Mathews in and out of the game because his offense is far superior to his D, but made sure to have him on the floor in crunch time. "I call him Big Shot Bob," Few says, "because I'm so old that whatever the heck his name was that made all the shots back in the day in the NBA finals [writers note: it was, obviously, Robert Horry]. He's Big Shot Bob for us. He's not afraid."
The way defenses in the NCAA tournament have tried to scheme against Gonzaga's massive, interior advantage—often doubling down on center Przemek Karnowski in the halfcourt, and running back in transition to clog the lane against point-to-post passes on the break—often leaves Mathews with excellent three-point looks on the wings. He left Cal as a graduate transfer this past off-season with the goal of chasing a Final Four at Gonzaga, and he accepted a lesser offensive role with the loaded Zags than he had in Berkeley. The shots are fewer for him this season, but the stakes? They just keep getting bigger.