If the West Region’s No. 1 seed comes down to a decision between Pac-12 favorite Arizona and perennial WCC champion Gonzaga in a few months, the third-ranked Wildcats may now have an insurmountable edge.
They outlasted the ninth-ranked Zags 66-63 in overtime Saturday afternoon thanks to a remarkable defensive effort down the stretch.
Gonzaga appeared poised to wrest the title of best team in the West away from Arizona when it opened a six-point lead with 4:05 remaining in regulation, but the Wildcats’ defense stiffened thereafter. The only field goal the Zags scored the rest of regulation and overtime was a deperation fall-away 3-pointer from Kevin Pangos that sliced Arizona’s overtime lead to one with two minutes remaining.
What short-circuited Gonzaga’s typically efficient offense was Arizona’s ability to switch every screen and put a taller, longer defender on Pangos. The All-American candidate had trouble attacking the size and length of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Brandon Ashley, leading to two key turnovers in the final minute of regulation and overtime.
It also didn’t help Gonzaga that the referees swallowed their whistles on a critical call at the end of regulation. Domantas Sabonis was in position for a put-back after Gary Bell missed a jumper with two seconds remaining, but Hollis-Jefferson went over his back to knock the ball out of bounds, enabling Arizona to force overtime.
Arizona didn’t have much success on offense against a Gonzaga defense that protected the paint and invited the Wildcats to take jump shots, but Brandon Ashley and T.J. McConnell made enough big plays down the stretch to spark the rally.
Ashley blew by Sabonis for a driving layup and then buried a pair of huge jump shots in the final 2:30 of regulation to get Arizona into position for overtime. McConnell scored all six of Arizona’s points in overtime on a pair of short jumpers and two free throws.
Gonzaga had one last chance to force a second overtime when Byron Wesley drew a foul on Elliott Pitts on a 3-point attempt with three seconds left in the first extra session. The wing who left USC to have a chance to play in meaningful games like this one failed to come through, air-balling his first free throw a few inches shy of the front rim and then clanking his next two.
Letting a winnable game slip away was heartbreaking for Gonzaga, but the Zags will surely find some moral victories in the loss once the sting dissipates.
They proved they could take one of the nation’s elite teams down to the wire on its home floor, an excellent sign for a Gonzaga program that has enjoyed ample regular season success under Mark Few but has not made it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament the past five years. They also showed they have narrowed the gap considerably since their humbling 84-61 loss in the NCAA tournament’s round of 32 last March in San Diego.
Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. are healthier than they were that night. Wesley provides size, athleticism and slashing ability that the Zags didn’t have at small forward a year ago. And in Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga has a pair of big men who complement skilled 7-foot center Przemek Karnowski extremely well.
Karnowski’s patience and decision-making in the post during a 10-point, 11-rebound night were especially encouraging for Gonzaga. He’ll likely be the player who would worry Arizona most should the Wildcats and Zags meet again in a West Regional game or even in Indianapolis.
Impressive as the Zags were, however, they couldn’t handle Arizona’s defensive pressure down the stretch.
In the lone regular season battle between the West’s two best teams, the Wildcats’ defense was the difference.
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