SALT LAKE CITY — When Wichita State emerged from the under-eight-minute timeout Saturday against Gonzaga with its starting five on the floor, it was clear the NCAA Tournament third-round game would be mostly decided with the Shockers’ best players in the game.
WSU only had the chance to determine the outcome with its best five because several of its reserves helped keep it close when foul trouble and ineffectiveness damaged the Shockers late in the first half and early in the second.
The starters mostly won it, with help from a sub — Fred Van Vleet beat the shot clock for a three-pointer with 1:26 to go. That put the Shockers ahead by five, and they pulled a 76-70 upset over the top-ranked and No. 1-seeded Bulldogs.
Van Vleet, who played 20 minutes off the bench, also made four free throws down the stretch.
The Shockers saw their one-time 13-point lead over Gonzaga shrink to five at halftime, and the Bulldogs led by as many as eight in the second half. Gonzaga took advantage of a beleaguered WSU lineup, with Carl Hall and Cleanthony Early on the bench with three fouls.
Hall and Early were useful defending Gonzaga star center Kelly Olynyk, but when WSU couldn’t put both of them on the floor together, Olynyk scored 10 points during an eight-minute stretch in the second half.
Without two of their best scorers and best defensive options against Gonzaga big men Olynyk and Elias Harris, the Shockers held it together with its bench players, never allowing Gonzaga’s lead to stretch to double digits.
WSU ended the first half with two starters on the court — Malcolm Armstead and Ron Baker — along with Van Vleet, Chadrack Lufile and Jake White. The Shockers needed important but limited minutes from Lufile and White, the reserve post players, to defend Harris and Olynyk and to hold their own on offense.
White did just that, making a three-pointer with five minutes to go in the first half to put the Shockers ahead by 10 and tipping in a basket at the first-half buzzer that made it 36-31. That basket became more important in the second half, when it appeared Gonzaga would be primed to pull away.
Early was WSU’s best reserve, even though foul trouble kept him from dominant stretches like the ones he enjoyed in Thursday’s second-round win over Pittsburgh. Early finished with 16 points, but some of his fellow subs made an equal impact just through their maintenance efforts in the second half.
Van Vleet scored 13 points, three behind Early and a one-time substitute for the team lead.
Ron Baker had been coming off the bench since his return from injury two weeks ago, but he has started the two NCAA Tournament games and made a major difference Thursday with 16 points, including a personal 5-0 run that turned a one-point deficit into a 67-63 lead with 2:52 to play.
Baker was pressed into extended duty because the Shocker bench essentially has become shorter. Demetric Williams, a senior and usual starter, has been hampered by a knee injury and has played 21 total minutes in WSU’s two tourney games.