SAN JOSE, Calif. — Before the defensive stand that sent Gonzaga to the Elite Eight, Nigel Williams-Goss approached Silas Melson with a last-second adjustment.
Williams-Goss asked to guard Jevon Carter, the West Virginia guard who led the Mountaineers in scoring this season and tormented the Zags for much of the second half.
“I was going to guard him and he told me, ‘No, I’m going to take him,” Melson said. “It takes big nuts for someone to step up and say, ‘I’m locking this dude up for the last 30 seconds,’ [when he] just hit a big-time three and had been balling the whole game.”
The remarkable defensive effort of Williams-Goss is the biggest reason West Virginia’s final possession turned out be such a disaster. Three times Carter had chances to force overtime, and three times Williams-Goss stymied him, preserving a 61-58 Gonzaga victory that leaves the Zags just one win away from their first Final Four.
Carter’s first attempt was a step-back 3-pointer from the right corner with Williams-Goss’ outstretched hand in his face. It failed to draw iron.
Carter got a second chance after Daxter Miles Jr. secured the offensive rebound and quickly fed him the ball. Again he couldn’t shake Williams-Goss and hoisted an even deeper, step-back 3-pointer that barely grazed the rim.
Awarded a third chance after Nathan Adrian chased down the loose ball, Carter tried anew to use his dribble to create space. So smothering was Williams-Goss’ defense that Carter couldn’t even get off a shot, instead feeding Miles with too little time remaining to even attempt a game-tying 3-pointer.
“[Carter] had just hit a big-time 3-pointer a couple possessions before, so I knew he wanted to hit another one,” Williams-Goss said. “Tonight my offense wasn’t really going, but I pride myself on being a well-rounded player. I knew I had an opportunity help us pull out the win by getting a big stop. I stepped up to the challenge and gave it all I had for the last 30 seconds.”
That Gonzaga advanced to the Elite Eight with a defensive stand is fitting for a program now thriving on getting stops. The Zags owe their 35-1 record to the best defense in program history, one that features wings athletic enough to stay in front of the ball, an array of big men who alter shots at the rim and a point guard able to shake off a 2-for-10 shooting performance and find other ways to contribute.
It’s easy to criticize West Virginia for going back to Carter three straight times instead of giving someone else a chance, but there’s no other player the Mountaineers would want with the ball in his hands and the season on the line.
Carter averaged a team-high 13.3 points this season and hit nearly twice as many 3-pointers as any other West Virginia player. On a night when the Mountaineers shot only 26.7 percent of their shots and couldn’t generate any clean looks against Gonzaga’s rock-solid defense, Carter was the lone exception, tallying 21 points including four 3-pointers.
Bob Huggins didn’t lament putting the ball in Carter’s hands or not having a timeout left to use. The junior guard’s only regret was not trying for a quick two with Williams-Goss guarding him out beyond the 3-point arc.
“That was a mistake on my behalf,” Carter said. “I should have drove it to the basket, but knowing it was a 3-point game, I tried to go for the 3 since I had been hitting.”
Gonzaga’s defensive stand was the final element of a season-saving sequence that began after Carter curled around an Adrian screen and sank a 3-pointer to give his team a 58-55 lead with two minutes to play. With their best season in program history in jeopardy, the top-seeded Zags responded with poise and toughness, reeling off the final six points of the game.
The key sequence in Gonzaga’s surge began when Adrian stripped Williams-Goss after he’d secured the rebound of a missed free throw. Adrian appeared to have a wide-open layup that would have extended the Mountaineers’ lead to three, but Gonzaga’s Josh Perkins soared in from behind for a massive blocked shot.
Williams-Goss grabbed the loose ball, zoomed up court and spotted senior sharpshooter Jordan Mathews alone in the corner. Remembering that Mathews had asked for the ball in that spot only a couple minutes earlier, Williams-Goss fed his teammate, who corralled a tipped pass, set his feet and buried a go-ahead 3-pointer that gave Gonzaga a 60-58 lead.
“He told us in our huddle, ‘When I come in, if I’m open find me. I’m going to knock it down,'” Williams-Goss said. “We had all the confidence in the world he was going to do that.”
The two previous times Gonzaga has gotten within a win of the Final Four, the Zags have run into the eventual national champion in the Elite Eight. They fell by five to Richard Hamilton-led UConn way back in 1999 and surrendered 13 of the final 14 points against Duke in a 66-52 loss two years ago.
Saturday’s matchup against 11th-seeded Xavier should be more favorable. The Musketeers are peaking at the right time, but the Zags will open as clear favorites.
Seldom has a day gone by this season without Gonzaga coach Mark Few being asked if this is the best team Gonzaga has ever had.
The Zags are now one win away from leaving no doubt.
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