WSU pulls latest shocker in the West

SALT LAKE CITY -- With less than eight minutes left and his team looking shaken after losing a once-double-digit lead, Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall gathered his players and asked them a pointed, poignant question:

“Back on Oct. 15, if I told you that you would be down by five with seven minutes to go against top-seeded Gonzaga, would you have taken it?”

The answer: A bunch of nods.

Then a bunch of shots.

And now, a trip to the Sweet 16.

The ninth-seeded Shockers on Saturday shocked just about everybody -- except, maybe, themselves -- by knocking off the top-seeded, top-ranked Zags 76-70.

They did it with what they’re known for: sticky, aggravating, aggressive, angry defense, holding Gonzaga to 35.6 percent shooting.

But they also did it by adding a key jolt of offense, making 50 percent of their 3-pointers (14-of-28) after hitting only 2-of-20 in Thursday’s win over Pittsburgh. They also shot 50 percent overall for the game.

When they can do that, watch out.

“I’ve always said, if we shoot the ball well, we’re hard to beat, and tonight we shot it well,” Marshall said. “It was one of those nights where it went in. It was young players making big-time plays, big-time shots.”

And in a great big spotlight.

The Shockers led by as many as 13 points in the first half, but saw the advantage flip-flop by the 5:31 mark in the second, when Gonzaga guard Kevin Pangos buried a 3-pointer to push his team ahead 61-54.

But that’s when Shockers forward Cleanthony Early (16 points) hit a 3-pointer. Then redshirt freshman teammate Ron Baker -- who had missed most of the season with a foot injury -- followed with a 3.

And then senior Carl Hall followed with a jumper that gave WSU the lead (62-61) -- and the momentum -- back.

“It just felt like everything was going in,” said Baker, who was 5-for-7 (4-for-6 from outside) with 16 points.

Especially when it counted.

After the teams traded free throws, Baker (again) and freshman teammate Fred Van Vleet bookended Gonzaga 7-footer Kelly Olynyk’s jumper with more 3-pointers, pushing the Shockers to a 70-65 lead with 88 seconds left. It was more than enough to hold up.

Yes, it was a wild finish -- but perhaps not a surprising one in the wild West region, where now the top seed (Gonzaga), 3-seed (New Mexico), 4-seed (Kansas State) and 5-seed (Wisconsin) have all lost.

Thus, Wichita State, seeded ninth, should be favored in its Sweet 16 game in Los Angeles next week against either No. 12 Ole Miss or No. 13 La Salle. Especially if the Shockers continue to combine this sort of shooting with their bruising brand of defense.

Not, several Shockers pointed out, that projections or predictions matter, especially this time of year.

“It just goes to show that seeding means nothing,” Baker said. “We’re just so happy to be moving on.”

So happy -- and boisterous -- that their postgame celebration extended from the court into the locker room, where the team could be heard chanting and screaming and singing the school’s alma mater even before the doors opened to the media.

Back in October, if Marshall would have told his players that this would be the scene in late March, would they have taken it?

“Definitely,” said Hall, who finished with 10 points and a great big grin. “Definitely.”