It wasn’t the Big Dance, just the last one – and for Blake Stepp, one last affirmation of his old team’s appeal.
With a lot of help from some friends, it was Stepp who pulled together Saturday night’s “Barnstorming Tour” two-ring basketball circus at Spokane Falls Community College – matching, in effect, four of Gonzaga University’s five graduating seniors in their last Spokane appearance against the Zags’ three incoming freshmen in their first one, with some pretty fair roster-fillers on both sides.
At game’s end, the scoreboard said one thing and the scorer’s book another, but that’s OK – in an exhibition like this, no one is going to bother to remember the final score, which was actually College All-Stars 128, High School All-Stars 102.
This was about memories and anticipation – and wild alley-oops and dunks – and an estimated 3,200 turned out at SFCC to appreciate it, despite tickets scaled high for benefit purposes (proceeds are slated to go to the Coaches vs. Cancer fund) and conflicts with the Lilac Torchlight Parade downtown and a WWE goonfest at the Spokane Arena.
It certainly put Stepp’s sales technique to the test.
“I was in Jack and Dan’s (Tavern) selling tickets and the mayor came in,” Stepp reported. “We were trying to get him to buy one and he said, ‘Well, I have this other thing.’
“But we’ve had such great support for our (Gonzaga) games. People love the program and this was another sign of that. And I think everyone had a great time.”
That was true from the first dunk attempt Stepp’s Oregon chum Luke Jackson rocketed off the back iron to a spectacular bit of handiwork by high school guards Pierre-Marie Altidor-Cespedes and Jeremy Mangum that pretty much capped the evening.
But the whole point was the passing of the torch – from Stepp and GU seniors Cory Violette, Kyle Bankhead and Tony Skinner to the incoming class of Altidor-Cespedes, Josh Heytvelt and David Pendergraft. And, at least in the first half, youth was not served – the collegians pretty much treating the preps as if they were the Washington Generals, opening with a 12-0 run until Heytvelt corralled a Mangum pass for a layup.
The preps whittled the gap down to six, 34-28, at one point, but then got outscored 24-2 – half of that coming on 3-pointers by Stepp, Bankhead and another ex-Zag, Ryan Floyd, from way out there.
“We kind of got started slow,” said Greg Spurgetis, the all-Greater Spokane League forward from Lewis and Clark, “but after that we held our own as much as we could, I guess. Mostly, we were just trying to play hard and have fun. You’re going against some of the best college players in the country.”
As much as this was a Gonzaga showcase, there was some digression.
Spurgetis, who is bound for Air Force Academy Prep this fall, got on a roll early in the second half and wound up scoring 22 to lead the high school team, one more than Pendergraft, who couldn’t get it going from the outside but worked his tail off underneath.
The other revelation was Mangum, a 5-foot-11 point guard from Yakima’s Davis High School who’ll be back in the SFCC gym playing for the Community Colleges of Spokane next season. His quickness and passing daring was a nice complement to Cespedes once they got used to each other. On the play of the night, Mangum captured a loose ball in the college end, bounced it through Floyd’s legs to get himself free and mailed a long pass to Cespedes, who delivered the exclamation-point slam. Mangum finished with 17 points, while the other two GU-bound preps had 14 apiece.
On the college side, there were no surprises – except that Stepp played more than he imagined he would after spraining an ankle on Wednesday. Jackson led all players with 24 points.
The reviews were reserved mostly for the kids, and were also predictable.
“I’ve seen them before,” said Stepp. “I knew they were good and what they could do. What people saw tonight was just a glimpse – they’re still just high school seniors and they have a lot of time to improve.”
And a lot of desire to begin with, apparently.
“I want to win the national championship,” said Pendergraft, “and be remembered as the greatest team Gonzaga’s ever had. We’ve got all the guys to do it. It should be a fun ride.”