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Saturday, April 20, 2019

Six biggest takeaways from Saturday’s Elite Eight games

Tony Bennett

The Elite Eight sneaks up on us every March. After enjoying multiple games each day, tiring out our television remotes switching from one match-up to another, suddenly we have singular showdowns dominating our brain space.

Every game feels like life or death, but all of the sudden we have a trip to the Final Four on the line. Saturday’s two games lived up to the billing, with both coming down to the wire. Here are six things to glean from 80 minutes of fantastic college basketball action:

1. Texas Tech makes history with Final Four appearance

It is hard to find anyone in the college basketball world more deserving of praise than Chris Beard, head coach at Texas Tech. In just four seasons as a Division I coach, Beard now has 139 total wins, 3 tournament appearances, 7 tournament wins, and a Final Four appearance on his resume.

Many will begin to connect Beard with higher profile jobs (like UCLA), yet we shouldn’t let that distract us from recognizing just what he’s done in Lubbock. The Red Raiders were picked to finish 7th in the Big XII before the season, after losing four starters and more than 50 points per game to graduation and the NBA Draft. Beard and his team responded by earning a share of the Big XII regular season title and playing the best defense in all of college basketball.

Texas Tech ranks first in the nation in defensive efficiency, and it showed on Saturday. The Red Raiders forced top seeded Gonzaga into 16 turnovers and 27 percent shooting from 3-point land.

2. Gonzaga ends another season without a championship

Since Mark Few took over as head coach at Gonzaga, he has consistently had the Bulldogs among the best teams in the nation. The Zags have been so good in recent years that any statement about Gonzaga’s success no longer requires any qualifiers. Gonzaga is not just the best mid-major or the best program on the West Coast; Gonzaga is one of the best programs in America, full stop.

The Zags have made the Sweet Sixteen in five straight seasons, most in college basketball. Gonzaga has made the NCAA Tournament every year for two decades, winning 31 tournament games in that time.

Finally in 2017, the Zags made their first Final Four. Two years later, Gonzaga’s only hurdle remains the biggest hurdle in the sport: a national title. Few has had the talent, opportunities, and chances in recent seasons. Until Gonzaga can pull off that feat, many will still look down upon the Zags as a lesser program among the blue bloods and power conference giants.

3. Referees miss a crucial call in Anaheim

With 67 games played under a rigorous spotlight, the officiating in the NCAA Tournament is always going to be nitpicked endlessly. Yet time after time in this March’s Big Dance, the zebras have made crucial mistakes down the stretch.

In the Sweet Sixteen, Purdue benefited from an iffy foul call on the final possession in regulation. Virginia Tech got a final look to tie the game because refs missed Kerry Blackshear’s foot touching the out of bounds line.

In the Elite Eight, Gonzaga was on the wrong end of a pivotal call. With Texas Tech leading late, Tariq Owens made an incredible leaping block, then saved the ball to a teammate before the ball could careen out of bounds. Before Owens touched the ball, however, he had been standing out of bounds. Refs totally missed this detail, which is not reviewable.

For a sport that has an excessive amount of replay reviews that can delay the game for minutes on end, college basketball also has a heaping helping of missed calls that are not reviewed or are unable to be reviewed by rule.

4. Virginia moves on and erases last year’s demons

It’s hard to compare what faced Virginia entering this tournament to what faced every other team. The Hoos were haunted by their upset defeat in the first round of last season’s NCAA Tournament, the first and only first round loss by a No. 1 seed. Tony Bennett’s coaching style and schemes were attacked. Good players like Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy were blamed and mocked.

This season, Virginia showed no effects of last year’s painful ending. The Hoos lost just three times before the NCAA Tournament, playing just as slowly and methodically as they always had.

Even in Saturday’s game, an all-time classic, when trailing by three with under ten seconds left, Virginia didn’t quit. When Purdue fouled Ty Jerome, Virginia perfectly executed under late-game pressure. Jerome’s second free throw was missed perfectly short off the front rim, was back tapped by the Cavaliers to Kihei Clark, who rifled a perfect one-handed pass to Mamadi Diakite. As the buzzer sounded, Diakite sank a floater to send the game to overtime, where Virginia gutted out a win.

If this team can survive that dire situation, last season’s memories are ancient history. Virginia is not going to the Final Four as a victory lap to prove last year was a fluke. The Hoos are going to cut down the nets in Minneapolis and have a real chance to do so.

5. Purdue loses, despite Carsen Edwards’ magic

After a great all-around performance for four games, Purdue’s journey ended Saturday in the Elite Eight. The Boilermakers played well enough to win the game, yet came up short in crunch time and fell behind in overtime, with a crucial late turnover sealing their fate.

Purdue was only in the game late due to the marvelous play of Carsen Edwards, who finished with 42 points on the game. Edwards put forth one of the greatest shooting performances in NCAA Tournament history, making 10 shots beyond the 3-point arc. Edwards hit step back jumpers, fadeaways, and even banked one in. He scored more than half of Purdue’s points, with no other Boilermaker adding more than seven points.

In the end, the lack of secondary scoring left Purdue on the losing end Saturday.

6. Kyle Guy’s shooting slump has ended

As Edwards rained in threes throughout the game, he was matched nearly shot-for-shot by Virginia’s shooters. Ty Jerome sank four outside shots but was notably outdone by his teammate Kyle Guy.

Guy had been one of college basketball’s best shooters all year long before the NCAA Tournament. Through the regular season and ACC Tournament, Guy sank 46 percent of his 3-point attempts, on more than seven tries per game.

The Big Dance had been a different story. Through three rounds of play, Guy was shooting 3-26 from long range. His shot looked the same as always, but he couldn’t buy a bucket or a soft bounce off the rim. Saturday, he ended that slump with a red hot night. Guy sank 5 of 12 from deep, sparking Virginia’s offense throughout the push and pull of game that was decided in the final moments.

Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.



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