It was the game that vaulted the Wichita State men’s basketball program back into the national spotlight and gave the Shockers their first victory over a No. 1-ranked team since 1963.
WSU’s 76-70 win over top-seeded Gonzaga in Salt Lake City on March 23, 2013 made Gregg Marshall one of the nation’s most-respected coaches, introduced Ron Baker to the national stage and ultimately propelled the Shockers to the Final Four.
All courtesy of a final eight-minute stretch of bliss that the Shockers are likely to never top again in the Marshall era.
Trailing 55-49 as the clock ticked inside the game’s final eight minutes, WSU ripped off scores on eight straight possessions, which included five straight three-pointers and a total of 23 points. In all, the Shockers outscored Gonzaga 27-15 in the final eight minutes to trump a good performance with an essentially perfect one.
In the third version of Shocker Classics, The Eagle has reviewed the game film and broken down exactly how WSU was able to pull off its finish.
Gonzaga had risen to a No. 1 ranking thanks to a 31-2 record entering the NCAA Tournament. Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga’s star 7-foot junior, was on his way to being picked in the NBA lottery after averaging 17.8 points and 7.3 rebounds. Gonzaga was also armed with a bulldozer in Elias Harris (14.6 points, 7.4 rebounds), a matchup nightmare for teams who used their top big defending Olynyk, Kevin Pangos, a clutch shot-maker, and defensive specialist Gary Bell (who missed the second half due to injury).
But the Shockers found their equalizer behind the three-point line this game. WSU would go on to drill 14 three-pointers on 28 attempts, a season-high in both makes and attempts and only the third time all season WSU made more than nine in a game. Ron Baker and Cleanthony Early each made four treys, while Tekele Cotton and Fred VanVleet each added a pair. Even Jake White got in on the action, drilling one of only three triples (and leaving his shooting hand hanging) he made during the season to lift the Shockers in the first half to a 26-13 lead.
But slowly Gonzaga’s advantages became a bigger part of the game. WSU, a top-10 defensive rebounding team in the country, simply could not keep Gonzaga off the offensive glass. The Zags had their way chasing after their own misses (and there were a lot of them — Gonzaga finished shooting a season-worst 36% on two-pointers — and actually finished with more offensive rebounds (21) than WSU did defensive rebounds (20). Olynyk (six), Harris (four) and Mike Hart (seven) gave WSU fits on the offensive glass. The 51.9% offensive rebounding rate was by far the highest WSU had allowed and just the second time WSU allowed higher than 39% for the entire season.
Slowly but surely, Gonzaga’s advantages began to take over. The Bulldogs outscored WSU 18-5 in the first eight minutes of the second half to take a 49-41 lead. Gonzaga coach Mark Few had engineered an outstanding defensive plan, which featured Gonzaga’s posts aggressively double-teaming WSU’s ball handlers every time WSU set an on-ball screen. The strategy successfully pushed WSU out of its normal half-court rhythm and had the Shockers scoring at a well-below-par 0.96 points per possession with Gonzaga leading 55-49 with 7:55 remaining.
Wichita State’s other-worldly run began innocently enough — with an Early drive and lay-up kissed off the glass. The Shockers felt some momentum swing on the next trip down when Baker caught a pass off a flare screen on the right wing and two Gonzaga defenders went flying to try to contest the shot; other Baker used this as a distraction and simply dumped it off to a wide open Cotton, who swished the corner three to cut Gonzaga’s lead to 58-54.
On the other end, Pangos answers back with his fourth three-pointer of the game. As Gonzaga went back up 61-54 with 5:20 remaining, KenPom’s win probability chart shows Gonzaga’s chances of winning spiked following this shot at 91.9%.
That made WSU’s next possession crucial: score and remain in the game or come up empty and potentially dig an even deeper hole.
Remember above how much trouble Gonzaga’s trapping was giving WSU’s ball handlers earlier in the game? Well, this time Cotton handles the trap beautifully, keeping his dribble alive and finding the angle to shoot past him and crumble the double team. That opened up a hand-off to Early at the top of the key, who rises and delivers the three-pointer that the Shockers were desperately seeking.
Just like all great comebacks, a little luck is involved. WSU catches a break on the ensuing Gonzaga possession when the Zags catch Carl Hall on a block-to-block screen that frees up Olynyk for a close look at the basket. Hall does well to challenge the shot at the rim, but he was late — nonetheless, Olynyk’s shot was disrupted, Hall wasn’t called for a foul, which left Olynyk appealing to the referees with his hands up, and WSU had a fast break.
WSU nearly turned it over when Baker passed ahead to Early, who wanted to fire the corner three but a strong challenge from Hart changed his mind and he barely kept his toes down on the floor on what became a pump fake. Early took one dribble, then kicked it back to Baker, who was three feet off the three-point line on the right wing and moving away from the basket when he caught it.
Remember, this was five seconds into the shot clock with WSU trailing 61-57 against the No. 1 team in the country with less than five minutes remaining and a Sweet 16 berth on the line. Not to mention, Hart, all 6 foot 6 of him, was charging at him and was in Baker’s face and an inch or two away from blocking the shot when Baker released. It didn’t matter. Splash.
After Olynyk missed a jumper, WSU takes a 62-61 lead in an improbable way: a 17-foot catch-and-shoot jumper by Hall. According to Synergy’s logs, Hall took just eight catch-and-shoot jumpers that entire season. He made one. This one, to give WSU a one-point lead with 3:28 remaining.
“Carl worked all offseason on expanding his jump shot,” WSU assistant coach Greg Heiar told the Eagle. “To get to do it at the biggest moment, that’s what this program is about. Working on your game. Becoming a better player. And Coach lets you make plays on the biggest stage. When he came, he was a four-foot-and-in offensive player.”
Gonzaga briefly reclaimed the lead after a pair of Harris free throws, but Baker is fouled away from the ball the next time down and sinks his pair to put the Shockers back up 64-63 with 3:10 remaining.
After Baker made his second free throw, disaster struck for Gonzaga. Harris grabbed the ball, stepped over the bondary line and flipped it to teammate David Stockton, who thought he was taking the ball out and took two steps back over the boundary line. Marshall was all over it and so was referee John Higgins, who didn’t hesitate to whistle for the turnover as Marshall clapped in glee on the court.
WSU made Gonzaga pay, as the Shockers ran a simple pick-and-roll up top with VanVleet and Hall and Hall’s roll down the middle sucked in Pangos just enough on the help defense to leave Baker open in the right corner. VanVleet whipped a pass to Baker, who set his feet in the air while catching the pass to ensure he could rise without hesitation and fire away a swish for an essentially five-point swing to give WSU a 67-63 lead with 2:52 remaining.
“I remember turning down a three early on in the game and Jans kind of got on me,” Baker told the Eagle. “I started shooting when I was open and taking better shots. After I made that I remember looking over looking over at Jans and he was freaking out, yelling, ‘Let’s go.’”
Olynyk drains a jumper on the other end, which sets up the defining play of WSU’s win.
Malcolm Armstead had been the engine to the offense the entire season and the player expected to have the ball in his hands when the game was on the line. And with the clock approaching the final 90 seconds and WSU clinging to a two-point lead, Armstead sprints up top to retrieve the ball from VanVleet, a freshman, as the shot clock winds down.
Only this time, VanVleet keeps the ball. The freshman attempts a crossover with five seconds left on the shot clock, but loses his dribble. He collects the ball, takes one more dribble, then fires a rainbow from the left wing that splashes through the net for a 70-65 lead with 1:26 remaining. VanVleet left his shooting arm hanging the entire time, then turned to the WSU bench to wink at Marshall after the biggest shot of his career to that point went through.
“It was like this thing, all year, (Marshall) used to yell out percentages in practice if you weren’t shooting it well,” VanVleet told the Eagle. “‘30 percent, VanVleet, 28 percent.’ It was this ongoing thing all year about him and my shooting percentages. That was like me giving him a little shot back.
For the record: VanVleet was shooting 31.5% on three-pointers at the end of January before making 14 of 27 from beyond the arc to finish the season.
Meanwhile, Gonzaga hurried to take the ball out and Pangos tries to throw ahead of the defense to Olynyk on the fast break, only for the pass to sail high, leaving Olynyk to flip the ball up toward the backboard to keep from going out of bounds. WSU easily secured the rebound and made its free throws down the stretch to put a bow on the program-altering win.
But that wild eight-possession stretch is what makes this game so special. Gonzaga scored 10 points in that span, which usually would be more than enough to protect a seven-point lead.
Only the Shockers were perfect.
WSU scored on all eight possessions, capped by the VanVleet dagger, for a total of 21 points. In other words: WSU scored an outrageous 2.63 points per possession during crunch time.