There are different types of Gonzaga fans in the Spokane community.
Die-hards. Casual. Front-runners. Folks who just love the sweatshirts.
You name it. The Bulldogs run of success has attracted them all. And nothing brings them together like the NCAA Tournament.
It’s a given, right? An annual celebration. March Togetherness.
So we thought we would join the throngs at a local watering hole – The Ref in the Spokane Valley – for lunch with the Zags on the tournament’s opening Thursday.
The Bulldogs, a one seed and favored by almost two-dozen points, facing overmatched South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits, with a regular season record barely above .500, had no chance, right? No 16th-seeded team has ever defeated a No. 1 seed. A warm-up game for GU.
To be enjoyed sitting on a high stool, bolstered by unlimited Diet Coke and a plate of french fries. And whole bunch of TVs, especially the minivan-sized one in front of the table.
Except the Zags weren’t angels. At least not in the first half. And the dozen or so folks in our party – and the rest of the place too – weren’t happy.
Concerned, maybe. But happy, no.
(Before we go any further, a quick disclaimer. It was obvious many of the folks in this establishment were playing hooky from work. The game started at 11 a.m. on a Thursday, so that was obvious. Some of our buddies were as well. So we’re not using names. Just some identifiers so you can keep track. Now back to that slog of a first half …)
“C’mon boys,” the Salesman to my left said more than once as the Zags were in the process of shooting 31 percent in the opening half, including 2 of 14 from beyond the arc.
The Jackrabbits played like tortoises early on, slowing down the tempo and retreating to their shell on defense. Heck, they were double-teaming Przemek Karnowski before he touched the ball.
“If you weren’t sure what the game plan was, look at it now. Look at where these guys are,” said CBS’ Steve Lappas, drawing a half-circle around the key that encompassed the entire SDSU defense. “They want to pack it in (and) hope Gonzaga misses from the perimeter.”
The Zags were. And that helped keep South Dakota State in front most of the first half. In one stretch the Zags had eight chances to take the lead and failed every time. And each was greeted by a collective groan.
Missed 3-pointers. Missed free throws. Missed opportunities.
When Zach Collins finally put Gonzaga ahead after 18 minutes and 10 seconds of playing time, the place erupted.
“The game’s turning,” said the Boss nearby. And it was. Especially when the Jackrabbits’ point guard, Michael Orris, missed a pair of free throws.
“I like a point guard wearing (No.) 50,” the Salesman said, laughing.
With the clock winding down, Collins missed a 3-pointer.
“That would have been nice,” the Boss said to the Retired Guy on his left.
Mark Few was concerned about it too, telling Jamie Erdahl “we’re not making shots,” as he left the court.
“Somebody’s got to step up and, you know, make some shots,” Few continued. “We’re going to have to play better on offense to win this game.”
But second half has been GU’s province all season. And the Salesman knew how to ensure it was again.
“Feed the hefty lefty,” he said.
Daum, the nation’s second-leading scorer, was 7 of 16 from the field, had just two made 3-pointers and shot only two free throws. His 17 points seemed almost immaterial.
Williams’ 14 rebounds were a point of discussion around the table. But so was the Zags’ 8-of-18 free throw shooting.
“Unbelievable,” the Salesman said, talking with the Teacher. “I’ve never seen them shoot like this in my life.”
And yet it didn’t matter. Today.
As the clock ran down with reserves on the floor, the 23-point spread came up in conversation. And as it became obvious it wouldn’t be reached, some seemed happy, others disappointed with the 66-46 final score.
But when the final seconds ticked away, and much of the crowd rose and began clapping, one thing was clear.
March Madness is Spokane’s communal affair.