Rivalry Picks Up Where It Left Off, Flying Bodies And All
Georgetown won’t play George Washington. Arkansas State never gets a sniff from Arkansas. Alabama doesn’t do Alabama State.
This is why:
Washington State 72, Gonzaga 67 - overtime.
Just your garden variety foul-at-the-buzzer, thudding-bodies, scratch-bite-claw, 51-foul, clutch-free-throw, tight-as-a-tattoo-defense, Tagament-gulping monster.
Which is exactly why it needs to be played.
The neighborly snub is a college basketball tradition that goes back as far as the laced ball. Hereabouts, it was former WSU coach Kelvin Sampson who took his ball and went home after losing to the Bulldogs in Spokane seven years ago.
You’d like to think Kelvin had pure motives. After all, if the series had never been interrupted, Friday night’s game in the Spokane Arena wouldn’t have received a 10th of the ink and airtime it got - or drawn half of the audience of 8,479 who braved personal bankruptcy to attend.
But, of course, we know better.
“It’s been too long for this game to be eight years apart,” said Gonzaga coach Dan Fitzgerald. “Nobody should be allowed to separate this game again, ever.”
This was the losing coach talking - and history tells us 70 percent of the time, the Gonzaga guy will be the losing coach.
So let’s hear from the winner.
“We learned we can be on the same floor, positively compete and give the crowd an unbelievable game,” said Cougars coach Kevin Eastman.
“I don’t know if you noticed, but I noticed it - as soon as the game was over, both groups of players went right to each other. Sometimes that doesn’t happen in a game like that.”
Now, Eastman also pointed out that those same players hadn’t been very far apart all night. Not on the scoreboard - not after the Bulldogs made up a 10-point deficit early in the second half - and not on the floor.
“There were a lot of held jerseys tonight,” Eastman said. “Both by the person in them and by the opponent.”
You tug on your own jersey when you’re tired, and this was definitely good-to-the-last-drop-of-sweat basketball.
You saw it in the determination of Wazzu’s defenders, who doggedly denied Gonzaga’s perimeter shooters their livelihood. You saw it in the rugged rebounding of GU’s Scott Snider, who pretty much willed the second-half comeback. You saw it in the coolness of Kyle Dixon, who made the two throws with no time left in regulation to force the overtime, and of WSU’s Mark Hendrickson, who must have buried a thousand of them in the extra period.
“It was a tough, physical game,” said Hendrickson. “It’s good to have one of those coming out of the blocks, but you kind of wish it would be down the road a little bit so you’d have a couple games under your belt.”
Make a note of that. A great game in November would make a sensational one in December.
But there’s a reason to play this at Thanksgiving, too.
“We got - without having to travel too great a distance - what Arizona got a little bit, what UCLA got,” said Eastman, “in that you play a very difficult game that’s your first game out.
“We got a lot out of it. Hopefully, Gonzaga got a lot out of it, too.”
A few hints, probably. The Zags, annually the best shooting team in the West Coast Conference, sank just 1 of 10 3-pointers - making that comeback all the more remarkable - and fell behind in the first place because they couldn’t keep up on the boards.
“We’re not a great rebounding team and we’re worried about that,” said Fitzgerald. “And I think it’s the weakest shooting team we’ve had since I’ve been here. Not necessarily a weak-shooting team, though, because we’ve had teams that have almost led the country.”
The Cougars, too, had their troubles - shooting just 40.7 percent after averaging a school-record 51.7 a year ago.
But nevermind. The season has 3-1/2 long months to go before the fun really begins - and perhaps both these teams will be playing overtime in March. This game had deeper meaning than discovering you need new variations on springing your shooters free for the 3.
“Just to have the opportunity to have those kids on both sides compete the way they did tonight is what preseason college basketball should be about around the country,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s what fans want to see and kids want to see and it’s what coaches and anybody who’s a competitor wants to be in.”
It’s never been a rivalry of mythic proportion. But it’s had its moments.
Doug Spradley’s half-court bounce pass to beat the Cougars in ‘88. Chris Winkler’s baseline jumper that spoiled a Bulldogs comeback in ‘83. The Zags winning in Pullman on Hank Anderson’s birthday in ‘70. And Duane Ranniger running in a 25-footer with 3 seconds to play for WSU in ‘58 - the only time all game he touched the ball.
Mostly, it’s a rivalry of common sense.
“This was a long time coming,” said Hendrickson. “I’ve played with a lot of these guys in high school and I’m glad I got to play at least one of these before I got out of here.”
Not to mention glad that his team got out alive.