MORGANTOWN — When the two teams step toward one another Thursday night, West Virginia will unleash its aggressive, pressing defense on Gonzaga and see if the Bulldogs respond better in the Sweet Sixteen than they did in the second half of their second-round win against Northwestern.
Gonzaga committed just three turnovers and Northwestern managed zero points off of those in the first half, but 11 Gonzaga turnovers led to 17 Wildcats points in the second half as an 18-point deficit at halftime was as slim as five points afterward.
Of course, Gonzaga did win, and Gonzaga remains in the tournament, the No. 1 seed in the West region and unbeaten in three games against the No. 4 seed, WVU. The two vie for a spot in the Elite Eight in Thursday’s 7:39 p.m. TBS game at the SAP Center, and the Bulldogs have dealt with conditions this season that are no worse than comparable to a combative defense.
“We had pressure all year long,” said guard Nigel Williams-Goss, a transfer from Washington who sat out last season and leads the team in scoring this season. “We were undefeated, and we didn’t feel any of that.”
Gonzaga is 34-1, and it continues to climb to and succeed in new altitudes. Long ago, Gonzaga was a Cinderella success story as a mid-major program. This is the 19th straight NCAA tournament appearance and the ninth year in a row the Bulldogs have won a game. They’re the top-rated team in calculations belonging to both Ken Pomeroy and Jeff Sagarin, and those are two of the tools the NCAA tournament’s selection committee uses to select and rank teams.
And this season, Gonzaga started off 29-0 and lost the final regular-season game at home to BYU.
“I’ve been blessed to have great groups of guys and great teams, but these guys really haven’t had a bad night,” coach Mark Few said. “They’ve been really, really focused. We had a bad 10-minute stretch against BYU, but we also came out at the start of the game and led 20-4. We were ready to go.”
The Bulldogs beat Iowa State and Florida to win the AdvoCare Invitational late in November. A week later, they topped Arizona, the No. 2 seed in this region, in the inaugural Hoophall LA. Gonzaga later beat Tennessee in the Battle on Broadway for a third invitation-only triumph and then finished non-conference play with a 31-point win at home, meaning the discussion about whether the Bulldogs could enter the NCAA tournament without a loss intensified all the way back on Dec. 21.
“We haven’t really felt any pressure the entire season,” Williams-Goss said. “We’ve been very goal-oriented all year. Compartmentalized the season, broke it up into non-conference, regular season, conference tournament and now the NCAA tournament. So far we knocked off three out of our four goals.
“We wanted to have a successful non-conference. Did that. We wanted to win the league. Did that. And we wanted to win the conference tournament. Also did that. We’re just excited to have the opportunity to finish off what we all came here for and the vision that we had for ourselves starting the season. No pressure. Just really excited and ready to play.”
Gonzaga’s West Coast Conference foes were not much competition. In a 17-0 start to conference play, the average margin of victory was 22.2 points and ranged from 10 to 48. Perfection came to an end in the finale against BYU, which shrugged off a dangerous start and outscored Gonzaga 44-30 in the second half to win 79-71.
Gonzaga won its conference tournament games by 32, eight and 18 points, and the championship game was a third win over St. Mary’s, which made the NCAA tournament as an at-large team. The Gaels lost to Gonzaga by an average of 17 points per game. Gonzaga trailed early in the opening round of the NCAA tournament but beat South Dakota State by 20 points and yielded ground but never lost the advantage against Northwestern.
“One of my friends and people that I lean on and talk to, he said we won’t know for four or five weeks whether it was a positive thing or a negative thing,” said coach Mark Few of the lone loss. “I don’t know how you would. The thought that everybody was running around with prior to that — ‘Well, it would be good for them to lose.’ — I just thought that was ludicrous. You never coach or think about losing a game, especially when you’re in that position.
“But we chose to just take the positives out of it and understand we have a process in place, and 29 times prior to that game we stuck with the process and crossed the Ts, dotted the Is and did our jobs. We kind of deviated from the process, and it cost us that one game, and it’s been nice to get back on track and doing what we’re supposed to be doing.”