The talk going into the Sweet 16 matchup between No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs and No. 4 West Virginia Mountaineers was all about defense. Not both squads mind you...just West Virginia’s. Because, you know, they are Press Virginia and all that.
Rightfully so. West Virginia’s defense was ranked No. 5 by Ken Pomeroy. It was known for the aggressive press that harried opponents into turnover after turnover. It was on full display against Notre Dame. The narrative carried enough that the Zags were a mere -3.5 favorites over West Virginia.
At the end of the day, it wasn’t the press at all. It was Gonzaga’s defense which held on, kicking and screaming, to limp the Zags across the finish line. West Virginia got their turnovers, getting the Zags to cough up the ball 16 times on various sorts of travels, over and backs, and out of bounds plays. The Mountaineers were as aggressive as they have been on the offensive glass all season, garnering 20 offensive rebounds (20!!!!!). Just those two stat stuffers alone would have you think that West Virginia pulled out the victory.
But here is the thing, Gonzaga is the top ranked defense in the nation. It showed through and through on Thursday night.
West Virginia shot just 26.6 percent on the evening. That is tied for the second lowest total by a Gonzaga opponent this season, and before West Virginia pats themselves on the back for not being the lowest, they should know that distinction belongs to the San Diego Toreros.
Jevon Carter was able to get away and hit big bucket after big bucket to keep West Virginia in it, but while the Gonzaga offense struggled at times, it was the consistent defense that kept the Zags in the game.
That goes to showcase the biggest difference between this Gonzaga squad and previous years. The age-old saying of defense wins championships is really true, and for the first time in a long while, the Zags really have a defense. By knocking out West Virginia, the top two defenses left in the tournament (not named Gonzaga) are Florida and South Carolina.
And this should be scary for opponents. West Virginia’s press and 1-3-1 matchup did a great job of hassling the Gonzaga offense. Nigel Williams-Goss finished with just 10 points off of 2-of-10 shooting and five turnovers, good for an his lowest offensive rating of the season at 64. Still, the Zags won. Zach Collins, the spark throughout Gonzaga’s run, finished with one point. Still, the Zags won.
The Zags probably drew the most difficult Sweet 16 opponent possible, and they gutted out a hard fought win, which is what they have done every time (except for once) this season. If everyone wants to keep doubting, go right on ahead. But this team has the balance, on both ends of the floor, to gut out a victory in any way, shape, or form. West Virginia learned the hard way.