Tournament collapses from years past flashed through the eyes of every Gonzaga fan when Matt Bouldin went down at half court and turned the ball over to put the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers within two points in the last minute of last night's thrilling round of 32 game. When the tip-in went in for the Hilltoppers to tie the game with nine seconds went in, I was sure that history was bound to repeat itself.
Luckily, for Gonzaga, Demetri Goodson probably has no clue about Gonzaga's tournament issues and has never heard of the Gonzaga tournament games against UCLA, or Davidson, or even Indiana. Meech just knows how to win and while he may have been an unlikely hero, Gonzaga fans had to be confident in the youngster as he drove down the court to hit the winning shot with less than a second left. Goodson's shot last night immediately put him in the Gonzaga hall of fame and while I am sure that he is going to have an outstanding career at Gonzaga, I don't think he can re-create a moment as perfect as the one he capitalized on last night.
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The majority of the game was extremely frustrating for Gonzaga fans. The first half was very similar to the first half of the Akron game which saw Gonzaga let the opposing team hang around. We knew about the outstanding back court of the Hilltoppers before the game but the duo of A.J. Slaughter and Orlando Mendez-Valdez were truly sensational. The two guards are basically the only two major mainstays from the tournament team of a season ago and they torched Gonzaga all night. Mendez-Valdez set the early tone as he hit six of the first seven WKU shots. Five of those shots were three-point baskets and the 'Toppers had a five point lead in the first ten minutes of the game. Slaughter quickly joined the party and the two guards combined to shoot over 50% from the field. This is nothing new for Gonzaga as they have continually been burnt by hot shooters not just this season, but in years past. Watching the fantastic Purdue game beforehand, it is pretty clear that the Zags are still lacking defensively. A number of times, Josh Heytvelt and Austin Daye were standing four feet away from WKU's guards after a screen and refused to show out and contest the shot. Purdue did an outstanding job and showing out on screens and making sure the three-point shot did not dictate the game. Heytvelt and Daye have got to get more active on defense and cut the leash that makes them incapable of traveling outside the three-point line on defense.
The second half started out hot for Gonzaga. The lead for the Bulldogs was six within the first two minutes and it felt like they were one shot from pulling away from the Hilltoppers. It wasn't that easy however, as Western Kentucky proved to be extremely pesky and the continued to answer Gonzaga time and time again. Both teams had very nice balance in the second half. WKU got some big shots from Sergio Kerusch and Pettigrew and Micah Downs and Josh Heytvelt made their impact felt for the Zags. The game belonged to the guards however. Matt Bouldin and Jeremy Pargo were phenomenal for Gonzaga. Bouldin was the jack-of-all trades and finished with 20 points, eight rebounds, and six assists. Pargo connected on seven of his 11 shots and finished with 18 points. They both controlled the game very well and were shooting the ball with plenty of confidence. Jeremy's shot has never looked better in his career at Gonzaga. From the WCC Tournament on, he has looked more like a three-point specialist than a driving guard. Bouldin continued to do what he does best, a little bit of everything. He made some sensational passes and pulled down eight rebounds to get the break started fast.
Even though Goodson drove the dagger into the Hilltoppers, they certainly did not help themselves with their free throw shooting. Western Kentucky shot 35% from the charity stripe and their shots were never really even that close. The Zags were very good from the free throw line, going 14-for-19 and hitting some in the clutch. Every other stat is very appealing to the eye as each team put on an offensive display. The Zags and 'Toppers both shot 50% or above from the line and both were over 40% from beyond the arc. It wasn't a game that will help the defensive field goal percentage of Gonzaga but I'm sure Mark Few won't mind too much.
Next up for Gonzaga is the vaunted North Carolina Tarheels on Friday. The Heels will be at full strength when the Zags come calling as Ty Lawson scored 21 of his 23 points in the second half against LSU yesterday. The guard has been battling a toe injury but there is no doubt that he will be good to go in Memphis.