Commentary

Gonzaga pulls off thrilling finish

Western Kentucky left to wonder 'What if?'

Updated: March 25, 2009, 3:53 PM ET
By Ted Miller | ESPN.com

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Like a frumpy fussbudget, we interrupt this report on Gonzaga's thrilling 83-81 victory over Western Kentucky to point out one of the most mundane basketball realities.

Make your free throws or you will be asking what could have been.

Before we tell you about Demetri Goodson's coast-to-coast drive into the NCAA tournament annals, where Gonzaga fans will celebrate his name for years to come with the reverence reserved for players who produced those unique and shining moments of clutch -- Bryce Drew, Danny Ainge, Tyus Edney -- we must provide a simple and telling number.

[+] EnlargeDemetri Goodson
AP Photo/Rick BowmerDemetri Goodson will go down as a hero in NCAA tournament lore.

The Hilltoppers connected on just 5 of 14 free throws. That 35.7 percent rate is basically half of what they hit during the regular season. They went 14-for-14 in the Sun Belt Conference tournament final.

Perhaps they should have stepped back a few feet to the 3-point line, where they were a thoroughly impressive 12-of-25.

On the bright side, those misses made WKU's late rally more difficult and also more impressive. After being down nine points with 2:14 remaining, it appeared that a game-tying tip-in from Steffphon Pettigrew had forced overtime.

But there were 7.9 seconds left on the clock, and this is the NCAA tournament.

Goodson, a freshman reserve who averaged 3.8 points per game this season, took the inbounds and didn't stop, even with senior alpha dog Jeremy Pargo yelling for the ball.

And, as if by magic, the lane opened up on the left.

He drove. He scored. Buzzer. Pandemonium.

"I was really surprised to get that look," said Goodson, who said his last buzzer-beater came in fifth grade.

He got that look because the Hilltoppers seemed certain he'd dish to one of Gonzaga's veteran stars. Of course, they didn't want to foul either. Perhaps too much.

"Guys are tentative -- it's their nature," WKU coach Ken McDonald said. "They don't want to foul."

Fourth-seeded Gonzaga now heads to Memphis, Tenn., for a date with top-seeded North Carolina. The Zags will be playing in their fifth Sweet 16 and first since 2005-06.

While Gonzaga was in control the entire second half, the teams were never separated by more than nine points. When Gonzaga tried to assert its will, it couldn't maintain separation, as six-, seven-, eight- and nine-point leads at various moments were quickly chipped into by the scrappy Hilltoppers.

WKU guard Orlando Mendez-Valdez, who finished with a game-high 25 points, made his fifth trey with 10:45 left before halftime, but he didn't hit his sixth until 2:44 was left in the game. Oh, he also hit No. 7 -- out of 10 attempts -- just over a minute later to cut the Zags' lead to 81-77 as the plot began to thicken.

Gonzaga point guard Matt Bouldin turned the ball over for just the third time in the game, and a Pettigrew dunk made it 81-79 with one minute left. Bouldin then missed an 18-footer on the other end, and the Hilltoppers took possession.

With the Rose Garden twisted tight, Pettigrew tipped in a miss from guard A.J. Slaughter for the tie.

For a moment, it look like magic for the Hilltoppers, who were trying to reach their second consecutive Sweet 16. Then Goodson happened.

The game was nearly a statistical dead heat. Both teams shot over 50 percent. Gonzaga had one more rebound. Both teams had 11 turnovers.

But Gonzaga connected on 14 of 19 free throws.

Let's now put aside that difference of nine made free throws. Now let's just enjoy another thrilling finish.

But the Hilltoppers might want to make their free throws next time.

Ted Miller | email

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