Disappointment visited the Gonzaga Bulldogs in each of the past five seasons, each endeavor hopeful until the NCAA tournament’s first weekend.
That’s where Gonzaga lost, five consecutive years, nary a Sweet 16 to show for a half-decade span that otherwise featured noteworthy performance.
Byron Wesley played in exactly zero of those games. Yet he had no choice but to embrace the sting.
“That’s pretty much the talk around town, is that Gonzaga, they always win their league, they always win the league championship, but in the tournament, they always fold and lose early,” said Wesley, a Gonzaga senior guard who transferred after playing his first three seasons for USC. “So I think it’s definitely frustrating when you hear that so much, and people always talk about how they just can’t get to that next level.”
They will not be saying it on Monday morning. Not in Seattle. Not in Spokane. And certainly not in Iowa City, where the Iowa Hawkeyes must now return after Gonzaga buried them Sunday afternoon beneath an insurmountable pile of 3-point jumpers and easy interior buckets. The Bulldogs raced to a thoroughly dominant 87-68 victory before a sellout crowd of 14,901 at KeyArena that amounted to equal parts excitement and catharsis.
It’s now on to Houston, where second-seeded Gonzaga (34-2) will face a familiar opponent in 11th seed UCLA, which the Zags defeated by 13 points in Los Angeles on Dec. 13, in its first Sweet Sixteen appearance since 2009.
That means, obviously, that this will be the first taste of the NCAA tournament’s second weekend for each player on GU’s roster. And that has to feel pretty sweet for senior guard Kevin Pangos, who dropped 18 points, and senior guard Gary Bell Jr., the former Kentridge High star, who scored 10 points and handed out four assists in the final game he’ll play near his hometown.
“There’s no greater feeling than this,” Pangos said, “because I haven’t been able to experience it.”
The experience will last considerably longer if they continue to shoot like this. Gonzaga, the nation’s leader in field-goal percentage, made 61.5 percent of its shots against the Hawkeyes, led by the 24 points of 6-foot-10 junior Kyle Wiltjer.
The Kentucky transfer played just 25 minutes, partially because of foul trouble, but made 10 of 12 from the field — including 4 of 6 from 3-point range — to pace a Bulldogs’ attack that simply did very little wrong.
The Zags made 12 of their first 16 shots, led 46-29 at halftime and withstood each mini-run Iowa constructed. The Hawkeyes, led by 20 points from Jarrod Uthoff and 19 from senior star Aaron White, cut GU’s lead to 11 points on three separate occasions, but Gonzaga answered each burst with a better one.
A nearly six-minute scoreless stretch by Iowa in the final 10 minutes removed any doubt.
GU coach Mark Few, who has been on the Bulldogs’ coaching staff for 16 years, said he was glad to be rid of his squad’s recent first-weekend-exit reputation, a distinction he finds unfair.
“(We) try not to listen to the noise,” Few said, “and you just usually block that out.”
The noise inside and around Gonzaga’s locker room, though, Few enjoyed plenty.
He strode purposefully through KeyArena’s concourse, GU athletic director Mike Roth smiling right behind him, Few clapping his hands feverishly as he entered a jubilant locker room about 10 minutes after the deed was done.
This isn’t a new feeling for Few. It will be his fifth Sweet Sixteen appearance as the Bulldogs’ head coach, and he was an assistant during GU’s run to the Elite Eight in 1999. But his players, first-time visitors to the regional semifinals, finally know what they’ve been missing.
They seem to like it.
“We just wanted to do it selfishly for ourselves and our fan base,” Pangos said. “Because we believed that we were good enough, and we just wanted to experience this. So, it feels awesome.”