The final push came after Jevon Carter of West Virginia sunk a go-ahead 3-pointer with 1 minute 47 seconds remaining. Trailing by 58-55, Nigel Williams-Goss of Gonzaga made two free throws and, after the Mountaineers’ Daxter Miles Jr. missed two, Jordan Mathews swished a 3-pointer from the corner to put Gonzaga in front by 60-58.
West Virginia (28-9) possessed the ball for the final 37 seconds, missing two 3-pointers from Carter and grabbing two offensive rebounds before failing to get a final shot off before the buzzer. As the horn sounded, Gonzaga’s bench flooded the court and Coach Mark Few pumped his fist and bedlam reigned at center court while West Virginia’s players pulled their jerseys over their heads and processed the finality of it all.
Gonzaga, led by three players who scored 13 points, will play either Arizona or Xavier on Saturday in the regional final.
Unlike so many of their so-called mid-major brethren, schools like Butler and Wichita State and Virginia Commonwealth, Gonzaga (35-1) has never won a regional final. It lost back in 1999, the year the Bulldogs stormed into the national consciousness as an upset-minded No. 10 seed, and in 2015, as a No. 2 seed, when they lost to eventual champion Duke.
But this, this is the best and deepest team Few has fielded in his 18 seasons as Gonzaga’s coach, loaded with versatility and an inside-out attack that overcame tournament teams like Arizona, Iowa State, Florida, Northwestern and, three times, St. Mary’s. It tried overwhelming West Virginia, too, but the Mountaineers countered by being a general nuisance.
Dealing with that defense is like playing basketball in a blender.
Pressing and trapping, the Mountaineers force turnovers, create steals, challenge entry passes, contest dribbles and relish 5-second violations. They inflict physical pressure and mental fatigue and look for familiar signs of exhaustion, familiar because they suffered themselves during all those 5 a.m. conditioning sessions in which they ran the length of the court and back in 22 seconds. How many times? “On a good day,” the sophomore forward Esa Ahmad said, “about 40.”
Because of that press, the sheer intensity and relentlessness of it, West Virginia perennially presents one of the tougher matchups come tournament time. Simulating its ferocity, Few said, is impossible.
“You don’t,” Few said. “You can’t.”
But Gonzaga tried, anyway. Over these last few days, the Bulldogs endured some of their most physical practices of the season. Their scout team fouled on every possession — multiple times.
Gonzaga, though, is comfortable playing at a fast tempo, and because it starts a three-man backcourt — two of which are point guards, Josh Perkins and Nigel Williams-Goss — it is better equipped than other teams to neutralize West Virginia’s ferocity. And early on, the Bulldogs did.
They had little problem pushing past halfcourt. It was in West Virginia’s end that they confronted trouble, in the form of a swarm. The harassment produced off-balance shots down low, especially from Gonzaga’s guards, who combined to shoot 3 of 17 in the first half.