March 11, 1996 in Sports

Second Showdown Washington State To Host Gonzaga On Thursday Night In Nit Opener

Dave Boling Steve Staff writer
 

At the very least, this National Invitation Tournament pairing adds an element of symmetry to the season for the men’s basketball teams of Washington State and Gonzaga.

After having not faced each other for seven years, the Cougars and Bulldogs met in the season-opener at the Spokane Arena, with WSU clawing to a 72-67 overtime win.

It was so much fun, the NIT is going to let them do it again.

The teams learned Sunday evening that GU will travel to Pullman for an NIT first-rounder Thursday at 7 p.m.

Tickets ($12 reserved, $8 general admission, $4 students) are available by calling 800-GO-COUGS. No live television is planned.

The winner of this game will then meet the winner of the Nebraska-Colorado State game on March 19.

Neither team - GU at 21-8 and WSU at 16-11 - held realistic hopes of a berth in the 64-team NCAA tournament.

So bids to the 32-team NIT were gladly received.

“I see it only as a positive and I’m sure that I echo the sentiments of our guys,” WSU coach Kevin Eastman said. “We feel great to be in a postseason tournament because a while ago, I think a lot of people probably left our program out to dry.”

“It’s an honor to keep playing - that’s got to be the attitude that we take,” said GU’s Dan Fitzgerald, whose team claimed a share of the West Coast Conference regular-season championship. “The most important thing is we live to play again.”

Actually, postseason appearances have become a habit for these teams. WSU has made three NIT and one NCAA appearance in the past five seasons, while GU has sandwiched a pair of NIT berths around last season’s NCAA trip.

“We went 35 years here never getting into the postseason, and now, we’ve gone three straight - that’s a pretty good run,” Fitzgerald said.

The bids spoke well for the quality of basketball in the state as three of the four Division I teams were invited, with Washington playing Wednesday at Michigan State.

Interestingly, Oregon, which finished a game ahead of WSU in the Pacific-10 Conference standings, was not invited. Of the Ducks’ 16 wins, three came against non-Division I foes.

And although the Cougars placed seventh in the Pac-10, Fitzgerald sees them as an extremely challenging opponent.

“They’re a very high-caliber team and that isn’t just hype for the game,” Fitzgerald said. “What (UCLA coach) Jim Harrick said is they’re capable of winning this whole thing and that’s probably true.

“It might be the toughest of draws, but the important thing is you get another game,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s not a rival game for us, but it was a great way to open the preseason and it’s a great way to open the postseason.”

Eastman isn’t keen on assuming a favorite’s role.

“As much as I respect Jim Harrick, his opinion doesn’t mean anything to Gonzaga or, if we’re fortunate enough to beat Gonzaga, whoever would be our next opponent,” Eastman said.

Both teams have faced adversity since their initial meeting, with WSU, in particular, having to play four weeks without standout big man Mark Hendrickson.

A hand injury kept Hendrickson on the sideline for a month, but both teams should be at full strength.

The only exception should be GU’s reserve center Scott Morgan, who has left for spring training with the Cleveland Indians.

“Without a doubt, they’re a better basketball team (than in the first meeting), and I think we are, too,” Eastman said. “It has the makings for a great game, but it couldn’t be a whole lot better than the first game.”

From Fitzgerald’s perspective, a short bus ride to Pullman is infinitely preferable to the 13-1/2-hour trip the Bulldogs took to Kansas State in the NIT two years ago.

GU senior forward Jon Kinloch said he never expected to play the Cougars again, but “it’s a good game, a tough first-round game.”

The Cougars went to the NIT quarterfinals last year before losing to Canisius, while the Bulldogs lost to Kansas State in the second round two years ago.

Success in the NIT, Kinloch suggested, comes to those teams that are the quickest to get over the disappointment of not going to the NCAA.

Hendrickson is taking the same approach.

“It’s going to take a day to kind of hit you that, ‘Hey, we didn’t make the NCAA tournament’,” he said. This is generally not a big money maker for the participants, as the NIT collects gate receipts and television fees, and pays each team a modest appearance fee (in the $10,000 range) for each game.

WSU athletic director Rick Dickson said ESPN owns the television rights. He planned to explore the possibility of getting a regional cable station to pick up the rights, but saw that as doubtful. WSU bid to host the opener in Pullman, but Dickson said bids for second- or third-round games were made for the Spokane Arena. WSU students start spring break Friday.

Gonzaga has not played WSU in Pullman since the 1986-87 season, when the Bulldogs claimed a 59-58 victory.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos

MEMO: These 2 sidebars appeared with the story: 1. THURSDAY’S TIPOFF Washington State and Gonzaga meet in the first round of the NIT on Thursday at 7 p.m. in Pullman. No live TV planned.

2. NIT FIRST ROUND Wednesday Marist (22-6) at Rhode Island (18-13), 4:30 p.m. College of Charleston (24-3) at Tennessee (14-14), 4:30 p.m. Davidson (25-4) at South Carolina (17-11), 4:30 p.m. Washington (16-11) at Michigan State (15-15), 4:30 p.m. Saint Louis (16-13) at Minnesota (18-12), 4:30 p.m. Murray State (19-9) at Missouri (17-14), 5 p.m. Manhattan (17-11) at Wisconsin (16-14), 5:05 p.m. Tulane (18-9) at Auburn (19-12), 5:30 p.m. Arkansas-Little Rock (23-6) at Vanderbilt (17-13), 5:30 p.m. Alabama (16-11) at Illinois (18-12), 6:30 p.m. Mount St. Mary’s, Md. (21-7) at Illinois State (20-11), 6:30 p.m. Miami, Ohio (21-7) at Fresno State (20-10), 8:59 p.m. Thursday St. Joseph’s (15-12) at Iona (21-7), 4:30 p.m. Nebraska (16-14) at Colorado State (18-11), 6:30 p.m. Gonzaga (21-8) at Washington State (16-11), 7:05 p.m. Friday Providence (17-11) vs. Fairfield (20-9), 4:30 p.m.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Dave Boling Staff writer Steve Bergum contributed to this report.

These 2 sidebars appeared with the story: 1. THURSDAY’S TIPOFF Washington State and Gonzaga meet in the first round of the NIT on Thursday at 7 p.m. in Pullman. No live TV planned.

2. NIT FIRST ROUND Wednesday Marist (22-6) at Rhode Island (18-13), 4:30 p.m. College of Charleston (24-3) at Tennessee (14-14), 4:30 p.m. Davidson (25-4) at South Carolina (17-11), 4:30 p.m. Washington (16-11) at Michigan State (15-15), 4:30 p.m. Saint Louis (16-13) at Minnesota (18-12), 4:30 p.m. Murray State (19-9) at Missouri (17-14), 5 p.m. Manhattan (17-11) at Wisconsin (16-14), 5:05 p.m. Tulane (18-9) at Auburn (19-12), 5:30 p.m. Arkansas-Little Rock (23-6) at Vanderbilt (17-13), 5:30 p.m. Alabama (16-11) at Illinois (18-12), 6:30 p.m. Mount St. Mary’s, Md. (21-7) at Illinois State (20-11), 6:30 p.m. Miami, Ohio (21-7) at Fresno State (20-10), 8:59 p.m. Thursday St. Joseph’s (15-12) at Iona (21-7), 4:30 p.m. Nebraska (16-14) at Colorado State (18-11), 6:30 p.m. Gonzaga (21-8) at Washington State (16-11), 7:05 p.m. Friday Providence (17-11) vs. Fairfield (20-9), 4:30 p.m.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Dave Boling Staff writer Steve Bergum contributed to this report.


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