By Bud Withers, The Seattle Times –
PITTSBURGH — In the Gonzaga locker room, it was more after-party than wake. David Stockton put a stuffed rodent on Robert Sacre’s shoulder, the one somebody had hidden in Gary Bell Jr.’s hotel room to scare him.
“You know what,” said Sacre, referencing some previous Gonzaga stars, “the Blake Stepps, the Adam Morrisons were crazy and all intense. But we have fun while we’re intense.
“That was the best thing about this team.”
It’s past tense now, it’s “was.”
Saturday, Gonzaga took the exit sign from the NCAA tournament, out-steeled by Ohio State, 73-66, in the third round of the East Region.
It might have been more crushing for the Zags’ fans than it was for the guys playing, and take from that what you will. They didn’t infer any failure of will or fortitude, rather the whims of a basketball that wouldn’t do what they commanded in the last three minutes.
“I hope everybody understands, you start moving along in this thing, you’re playing (No.) 2 seeds, 3 seeds, 1 seeds,” Zags coach Mark Few said. “This was a 2 seed that was probably a 1 a week ago.”
It was a heavyweight slugfest, Gonzaga with more rebounds, more assists, fewer turnovers. But the Zags shot only 39.3 percent, and succumbed because they lost control of three Buckeyes in distinct spasms of the game.
Gonzaga had a 27-20 lead in the first half and with Buckeyes All-American big man Jared Sullinger benched with two fouls, the Zags had an opening. But Elias Harris’ absence with two fouls enabled forward Deshaun Thomas to hit two threes as part of a personal 10-point run.
Then came Aaron Craft, an apple-cheeked sophomore point guard whose innocent looks belie his intentions. Craft scored nine in a row of his own before and after half, taking advantage of the Zags’ defensive sag on Sullinger.
“I think they wanted Aaron to score the basketball,” Sullinger said. “Everybody doesn’t understand that Aaron’s a scorer.”
Well, yes and no. Craft’s 17 points tied a season high.
The Buckeyes (29-7) thus muscled ahead by 10 with nine minutes left, 58-48. But Bell, alternately banging a three and taking the ball to the basket, led his team back, and at 4:03, Harris hoisted a three in front of the Gonzaga bench that tied it at 61.
“I love how my guys fought back,” Few said.
Enter the third side of that Buckeyes’ triad. The Zags had stemmed Ohio State’s momentum with a 2-3 zone, but OSU probed the right side for Sullinger, and he flipped in the go-ahead basket over Sacre. He would hit another short bank shot to make it 66-61 during a stretch in which the Zags went empty on five consecutive possessions.
Insisted Few, “We got great shots.”
The one Zag Nation will remember was a three from the right corner by Pangos that would have tied it at 64 at 1:27.
Al McGuire used to call those “criers.” The ball popped crazily in and out, rebelled above the rim just long enough to throw Sacre’s timing off, and William Buford got the rebound for Ohio State.
“I swore that was in,” said Few. “I looked at the official: ‘How did that not go in?’ “
It was that kind of day for Pangos, whom the ubiquitous Craft, Big Ten defender of the year, held to 3-for-13 shooting.
“It felt really good,” said Pangos. “It was relaxed, it came off my hand nice. I thought it was good for sure.”
And so, Sacre led a group clap for the blue-clad Gonzaga fans at the Consol Energy Center, and for the third consecutive year, his team stopped in this round short of the Sweet 16. But in the locker room, he was lightheartedly referencing a Dr. Doolittle movie with a Cleveland sportswriter, and the Zags seemed to know this:
Ohio State was, and is, a little better. So this happens.
“We played our hearts out today,” said Bell. “We had opportunities to win the game, tied it late. With Rob, if he’s in a good mood, we’re in a good mood. He’s our leader.”
Big picture, Gonzaga turned out 26 wins, and a near-miss here, starting a backcourt of true freshmen.
“That’s really a lot to ask,” said Few. “They were incredible. The way they played this year was, I mean, unbelievable.”
Added Few, “This team has been incredibly low-maintenance. Great academically, great to travel with. It had unbelievable chemistry.”
If the elements weren’t quite enough to get past one of the nation’s forces of 2012, the Zags will live with it.