Salt Lake City, UT – Hopefully Gonzaga heard the wake-up call loud and clear on Thursday afternoon, and the Bulldogs are better prepared when they take the floor at EnergySolutions Arena on Saturday against the Wichita State Shockers in the third round of the West Regional of the 2013 NCAA Tournament.
Not only is Gonzaga the top seed in the region and owners of the most victories in the nation at the moment with 32, the squad is also the top- ranked team in the country according to the latest Associated Press poll, but you would have never been able to tell all that when the Zags hit the floor for their first game of the tournament versus Southern on Thursday.
The Bulldogs are a team that ran the table in the West Coast Conference during the regular season and then picked up yet another conference tournament title in a convincing win against Saint Mary's, and still the critics were wondering if Gonzaga could be a legitimate power given the schedule it has played this season. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, they left those skeptics with even more questions on Thursday when they needed a late 8-2 run to close against 16th-seeded Southern in order to grab the uninspired 64-58 victory.
As a result, Gonzaga improved to 18-15 in this tournament all-time.
As for the Shockers, they played second fiddle to Creighton in the Missouri Valley Conference in 2012-13, losing to the Bluejays twice this month, including the MVC Tournament title game almost two weeks ago. However, because WSU was competing against a top-flight team like Creighton during the regular season, the ninth-seeded squad was not scared off by the prospect of taking on eighth-seeded Pittsburgh on Thursday. In fact, the Shockers went on the attack versus the 20th-ranked team in the nation and came up with a somewhat unexpected 73-55 triumph.
With the victory the Shockers, now 2-1 in the all-time series versus the Panthers, are a game under .500 in the NCAA Tournament at 9-10.
According to Gonzaga sources, the Shockers won the only previous meeting between the programs, a 54-53 overtime affair in Kansas back in 1995 as part of the Cessna Classic.
The winner of this game advances to the round of 16 next week against an opponent to be determined.
The first half of the tournament opener for the Shockers was far from pretty, as they shot just 28.6 percent from the floor and made only one of their 14 attempts beyond the arc, but the good news was that Pittsburgh was held to only seven made field goals and missed all seven chances out on the perimeter, and trailed by five at the break as a result.
In the second half, WSU again struggled from long range (1-of-6), but was otherwise a solid 52.4 percent from the field and also feasted at the free- throw line (24-of-29) in order to claim the win against the Panthers. For the game, the Shockers connected on a staggering 33-of-41 at the charity stripe, more than doubling the effort by the Panthers (16-of-20).
Malcolm Armstead converted all nine of his chances at the line as he finished with 22 points, followed by Cleanthony Early with 21 points and seven boards off the bench, although he missed all six of his 3-point tries. Carl Hall tacked on 11 points for the Shockers, a team which is now outscoring the competition by nine points per outing.
Early, who has been a spark off the bench, leads the way with 13.8 ppg and is second on the glass with 5.2 rpg, trailing only Hall (12.7 ppg) who is responsible for 7.1 rpg. Starting center Ehimen Orukpe, doesn't do much as far as scoring is concerned (2.8 ppg), but in his limited time on the floor he is good for 4.5 rpg and is leading the program with 54 blocked shots.
The Bulldogs may have thought they were going to have an easy time of it against Southern when they opened on a 7-0 run, but that's how the meeting with the Jags should have played out in the second round of the tourney. Fortunately, Gonzaga got its act together late and prevailed by six.
Kelly Olynyk generated 21 points and 10 rebounds for the favorites, followed by Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell with 16 and 11 points, respectively. Providing a spark off the bench was David Stockton with his game-high seven assists, doing more for his teammates than himself just like his father (John) did at Gonzaga all those years ago.
Olynyk played 16 minutes in the first half on Thursday, but was almost a non- factor with just four points and that's not good enough for the top player in the West Coast Conference, and someone who is considered one of the premier college players in the nation. Averaging 17.6 ppg and 7.3 rpg, Olynyk needs to establish himself early against Wichita State in order to ensure the Bulldogs are not scratching to get by this time around.