DENVER -- Gonzaga, a perennial offensive locomotive, relied on its defense to stop Seton Hall star Isaiah Whitehead and advance in the NCAA tournament.
During a scramble for a loose ball in 11th-seeded Gonzaga’s 68-52 upset over sixth-seeded Seton Hall in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Thursday, Whitehead tussled with Zags standout Silas Melson in a scramble for a loose ball. After officials ruled the played dead, Whitehead took an extra swipe at Melson and drew a flagrant-1 foul.
Gonzaga fueled Whitehead’s frustration with a defensive effort that limited the volume shooter’s early impact by playing to his tendencies. Whitehead entered the matchup averaging 14.8 field goal attempts per game. Everyone in the Pepsi Center knew Whitehead, who finished 11-for-21 and scored 26 points in Seton Hall’s win over Villanova in the Big East tournament title game on Saturday, would not be shy about his shot selection. On Thursday, however, he was 4-for-24 overall and 0-for-10 from 3-point range to score 10 points, more than eight points below his season average.
Gonzaga refused to give him easy looks. He missed runners. He missed contested 3-pointers. He missed step-back jump shots. He started the game 1-for-12 as the Bulldogs' Eric McClellan, the West Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year, stayed in his chest. When McClellan wasn’t on Whitehead, Josh Perkins and Melson pressured him.
McClellan’s efforts, however, forced Whitehead into one of his worst games of the season. Late in the second half, Whitehead drove to the rim and spun with the Gonzaga senior shadowing him. Whitehead rose for the layup and McClellan swatted his shot to the floor.
Whitehead, however, missed a lot of shots. Even in bad times, the sophomore still puts up points on most nights because he averages 5.8 free throw attempts per game and makes 76.6 percent of them. But McClellan & Co. defended him without the handchecks and bumps that allow Whitehead to fill the stat sheet even if his shots aren’t falling.
The Bulldogs never gave him easy looks, and they didn’t give Whitehead a chance to hurt them from the free throw line, where he was 2 for 4. Both components were imperative to Gonzaga’s victory -- and so was Domantas Sabonis’ 21 points and 16 rebounds.