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Originally published March 23, 2013 at 9:10 PM | Page modified March 25, 2013 at 11:18 AM

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Gonzaga's loss to Wichita State magnifies an opportunity missed in NCAA tournament

For all its thrills and rise to new heights, Gonzaga succumbed to an upset loss against Wichita State to become the first top seed to lose in the 2013 Big Dance.

Times staff columnist

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SALT LAKE CITY — No. 1, huh?

As it turns out, being on top only meant a longer, harder, achier fall for Gonzaga. The Zags turned their unprecedented season into their greatest disappointment ever Saturday night, belly-flopping out of the NCAA tournament before the end of the first weekend, assuring their detractors the last wise crack.

With Wichita State making three-pointers from everywhere in the state of Utah, the ninth-seeded Shockers personified their nickname and pulled off the biggest upset in a West region full of them in a 76-70 victory at EnergySolutions Arena.

Wichita State made 14 of 28 three-pointers to end the Zags' season. After controlling the game early, the Shockers absorbed a second-half Gonzaga comeback and then commenced with their own rally from eight points down.

Now, the year is a conflicting one for the Zags. Gonzaga won a school-record 32 games and collected two historic firsts by rising to No. 1 in the national rankings and earning a No. 1 seed.

They were special accomplishments, no doubt. But in this unsatisfying moment, they feel like a cruel joke.

Gonzaga: No. 1 in your program — and No. 1 in your heartless ribbing.

There's no denying the truth. The Zags blew a wonderful opportunity, and they must live with the "overrated" jokes from cynics. They must live with an early exit that once again will fuel the notion this team underachieves too often in the NCAA tournament.

This one, though, is the greatest disappointment of all.

"It's a tough, tough, tough way to end a fabulous season," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.

It's also a tough, tough, tough way not to take advantage of being in a favorable position. The West region looked to be the least formidable in the tournament when it was announced last Sunday. Then upsets of five of the top eight seeds on Thursday made it seem as if the Zags had an easy route to the Elite Eight. Advancing that far only required Gonzaga to beat the Shockers and then the winner of No. 12 Mississippi and No. 13 La Salle. But the Zags couldn't even get out of the round of 32.

"Seeding means nothing," said Wichita State guard Ron Baker, who scored 16 points.

That is especially true when the underdog makes 14 three-pointers. For the second straight NCAA tournament game, Gonzaga defended poorly on the perimeter. The Bulldogs allowed Southern to make 10 of 23 three-pointers on Thursday, which means they gave up a ridiculous 24 threes in this Big Dance.

Gonzaga was too focused on preventing Shockers point guard Malcolm Armstead from having lanes to the basket and keeping Wichita State from getting the ball in the post, which is a staple of its defensive philosophy. Perhaps that seemed like the proper game plan before tipoff. Wichita State, which has shot a mediocre 33 percent from long-range this season, missed 18 of 20 three-pointers in its meat grinder of a second round game against Pittsburgh. On Saturday, however, the Shockers made 7 of 15 three-point attempts in the first half and led by as many as 13 points.

The Shockers went through a cold spell to start the second half, but they made four three-pointers in the final 6:05 as they erased an eight-point deficit. Gonzaga played almost the entire second half without its best perimeter defender, Gary Bell Jr., who had a foot injury. His absence was noticeable.

Gonzaga was stunned. This game was supposed to come down to toughness inside, but Wichita State beat the Zags at their own game. The Shockers were the offensive juggernaut, shooting 50 percent overall. The Zags were often flummoxed by the Shockers' defensive pressure and shot just 35.6 percent. They lost despite grabbing 21 offensive rebounds and outrebounding the Shockers 39-30 in a matchup of two of the nation's elite rebounding teams.

But Wichita State proved its toughness late in the game. It owned crunch time. And Gonzaga was left to wonder what happened.

"I don't even know what's going through my head right now," senior forward Elias Harris said. "It's over now. It's sad. It hurts."

That's not the typical for a No. 1 seed. But Gonzaga didn't play like a top seed in either of its games in Salt Lake City. The Zags survived Southern, but that performance turned out to be a harbinger of a premature exit.

That No. 1 ranking only meant they were the first top seed to go home.

It's a wicked fall when you're up that high.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @JerryBrewer

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