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Originally published March 23, 2013 at 8:31 PM | Page modified March 24, 2013 at 12:00 AM

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Wichita State eliminates top-seeded Gonzaga

Gonzaga fell, 76-70, to Wichita State on Saturday night, ending a dream season, satisfying its manifold critics.

Times college basketball reporter

Were Zags a soft No. 1 seed?

• Gonzaga (32-3) is the first No. 1 seed to lose in the tournament.

• Lost in the round of 32 for fourth consecutive year, have not advanced past the Sweet 16 since 1999.

• Benefit from a relatively easy schedule in the West Coast Conference.

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SALT LAKE CITY — So this is how it ends for the best college basketball team in our state over the last half-century: With a faint chant of "Overrated" coming from the stands; with some brain-cramp decision-making; with a wan wave as he exited from senior Mike Hart to thank the fans.

Gonzaga fell, 76-70, to Wichita State on Saturday night, ending a dream season, satisfying its manifold critics and leaving a wide-open West bracket in the NCAA men's basketball tournament to some other opportunist.

Down a hallway after the Zags had left the interview podium, CBS's Doug Gottlieb and Gonzaga coach Mark Few talked briefly, seemingly amiably. Can't say who had the last word, but figuratively, it was Gottlieb, one of the legion of Gonzaga doubters.

Today, they're a cottage industry, after Gonzaga surrendered a fusillade of Wichita State jumpers in the final 12 minutes — 35 points' worth, which is not easy to do.

"I don't know why we didn't think they were going to shoot it," said Hart, who had 14 rebounds and a couple of unexpected threes in his final college game.

Obviously, they should have. Wichita State made 14 of 28 threes, and if those numbers sound vaguely familiar, they ought to. That's precisely what Brigham Young, with Jimmer Fredette, did to KO the Zags from the 2011 tournament.

Now they have to pick up the shattered pieces of a season that saw them ascend to an unheard-of No. 1 ranking, to a top seed, to 32 victories.

"I don't even know what's going through my head right now," said a flummoxed Elias Harris, the forward also now done with his college days. "It is what it is. It was a hell of a year. I've had the greatest teammates in the world, and it's over now.

"It's sad. It hurts."

Nobody ever quite clicked for the Zags in this subregional, from the GU pep-band director choosing "Rocky" in the last three minutes of Thursday's cliffhanging win against 16th-seeded Southern; to the foot injury that felled Gary Bell Jr. for the final 18 minutes, robbing Gonzaga of its best perimeter defender; to the mental mistakes in the final stages.

The Zags were on their heels in the first half, falling behind 26-13 after a 13-0 Wichita State burst. But GU got back within 36-31 at the half, and after a sizzling 12-0 run in the early stages after intermission, they were on top 49-41 with 11:53 left. The Shockers were staggering.

But guard Ron Baker drilled a three from the right corner, a run-breaking three, and even after the Zags held serve with a 58-51 lead with 6:29 left, they couldn't get stops. Nine straight possessions, the Shockers stung them for points.

"We lost their shooters," Few said, "and they stepped up and made some big shots."

Ahead 63-62, the team that believed it owns the final four minutes then came unglued. First, Kevin Pangos fouled Baker needlessly on the perimeter, and he made both to give the Shockers the lead for good.

Then Gonzaga miscommunicated on an inbounds exchange between Harris and David Stockton, turning the ball over. And Baker nailed another three. The unkindest cut came with 1:28 left, when sub guard Fred Van Vleet, guarded by Stockton with the shot clock expiring, horsed up a three that sailed home for a 70-65 lead.

The Zags will be hearing lots of theories about their premature exit, so here's another one, free of charge:

In general, I think two kinds of teams are making the Final Four these days: Ones that have a rugged, defensive-and-rebounding identity (Butler, Michigan State), or those that can attract elite athleticism (Louisville, most years). For all their thrills this year, the Zags are neither. They didn't have the college staple of penetrating guards, nor, despite Bell's will and toughness, perimeter size to stop big guards.

Few seemed to concede as much.

"What we are and what we had was a great team," he said. "We're not overly athletic. We're based on just playing together and we have a high level of skill, good size and we play hard and we're pretty efficient."

But it's over now, leaving Few to deliver the post-mortem.

"Tonight, it's gonna feel awful," he said. "After a couple of days go by, we'll realize it was one hell of a ride."

All of which means the end was one hell of a crash.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

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