PULLMAN – All the hoohah and hand-wringing that goes on every single year about the mutual disdain that keeps Gonzaga University and the University of Washington from meeting on the basketball court?
From here, the complaining is nearly as tiresome as the cold war itself, or whatever it is.
But here’s the thing: The disdain winds up trickling down to a public that wants to see the game, and it took the Washington State Cougars to hammer home the silliness of it Wednesday night.
Not that the Cougs had that on the agenda. They couldn’t care less.
They just wanted to win. They damned near did. Possibly they even should have.
And the passion that was involved – first from the Cougs, then from both teams – was unparalleled, and the kind thing you can almost always expect from the offspring of geography.
“You want to play your best against your rivals,” Cougars guard DeVonte Lacy said. “That’s what it is.”
Down 11 points to the 10th-ranked team in the country, the thoroughly dismissed Cougs threw a crazy-bad scare into the Zags – submitting only when the player who couldn’t hit a shot all night hit the biggest shot of all.
Kevin Pangos’ driving layup with 2.2 seconds left was the gavel in Gonzaga’s 71-69 verdict over the Cougs at Friel Court – though there was a Hail Mary appeal in the form of Lacy’s three-quarter court heave that WSU teammate Brock Motum tried to tip it in wedding-bouquet-style at the buzzer.
“That was just a tough shot,” Lacy said of Pangos’ winner. “There’s two hands, maybe three (he had to shoot over). But he hit it right off the glass.”
Clutch as it was, it’s not the memory most of Wednesday’s theater-goers took out the door.
Instead, they’ll remember the flurry of 3-pointers Lacy and Motum buried to pull the Cougs back from that deficit.
They’ll remember a stunning second half by Gonzaga’s Kelly Olynyk, all 22 of his points coming after halftime – including a three-point play and a long-distance 3 that were punches to the gut of the Cougs among the energized crowd of 9,367.
They’ll remember the single biggest non-scoring play of the game – Mike Hart’s rebound of Olynyk’s missed free throw with 67 seconds remaining, which eventually led to Olynyk’s 3 that gave the Zags a 68-64 lead.
But mostly they’ll remember the sheer fun and drama of a nonconference rivalry game – not with the national profile of a Kentucky-Louisville or the rancor of Cincinnati-Xavier, but with lots of regional oomph.
“They’re super fun,” Hart said. “You get a crowd like you did tonight – it was rocking. That’s why you play college basketball, to play in games like these.”
Of course, the Zags get more than their share of emotional, high-stakes basketball with the nonconference schedule they play – and now with some of the tests they get in the West Coast Conference, too.
But they may not see the level of want-to and desperation the Cougs brought to the party this night, which happened to coincide with Gonzaga’s first true road game.
“Some teams don’t have one until deeper in the season, and then maybe the opponent has been beaten down enough that they don’t really believe,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.
“This time of year, everybody believes – especially if you let them believe and if you let them play significantly harder than you and with more passion, which is what happened in the first eight to 10 minutes of that game. And then you’ve got your hands full.”
Beyond passion, the Cougs got something extra in the return of Lacy, who had missed four games with a knee injury yet looked downright bionic in strafing the Zags for 22 points.
But there’s always something to be said for passion.
“I’m proud of our guys,” WSU coach Ken Bone said. “I thought we had situations where we could have backed down and thrown in the towel and we would not let up.”
But there was resilience in the ranked team, too. For all their vaunted depth, the Bulldogs used just six bodies the second half, both out of circumstance and design.
“You want to play in games like these,” Hart said. “The crowd’s into it, both teams are very emotional, very invested – and every possession counts.”
The Zags are 9-0 now – their best start as a Division I program, and second best in school history after the 11-0 run to open the 1944 season. Interestingly, that start included a pair of wins each over WSU, Idaho, Eastern and – yes – the University of Washington.
Not in front of 9,000 maniacs, but fun stuff nonetheless.