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Memory lane filled for ex-Gonzaga players, assistant coach

UPDATED: Thu., March 30, 2017, 6:24 p.m.

Demetri Goodson drives to put up the winning shot as the Zags beat Western Kentucky 83-81 in the Portland Rose Garden at the second round of the NCAA Tournament, March 21, 2009.    (The Spokesman-Review)
Demetri Goodson drives to put up the winning shot as the Zags beat Western Kentucky 83-81 in the Portland Rose Garden at the second round of the NCAA Tournament, March 21, 2009. (The Spokesman-Review)

GLENDALE, Ariz. – The time Gonzaga took the floor with just four players against Wyoming. The time a few hours earlier when a piece of chicken lodged in Kyle Bankhead’s throat.

The unparalleled double-overtime thriller between Gonzaga and Arizona in 2003.

The redoubtable Southern University band. Freshman Demetri “Meech” Goodson ignoring Jeremy Pargo’s demands for the ball and hitting a buzzer-beater against Western Kentucky in 2009.

The bear hug Billy Grier put on unsuspecting Dan Monson after Casey Calvary’s tip-in against Florida in 1999. The enormity of the Georgia Dome.

Memory lane is bumper-to-bumper with anecdotes and tales when four ex-Zags and former assistant coach Billy Grier recalled their NCAA Tournament memories on and off the court.

Emergency room

Gonzaga gathered for its pregame meal before facing Wyoming in Albuquerque in 2002. Bankhead dutifully took his regimen of vitamins handed out by former trainer Steve DeLong. One didn’t go down quite right and a few seconds later a piece of chicken stuck in Bankhead’s throat.

Bankhead could breath but he couldn’t swallow. He was extremely uncomfortable. He had experienced similar problems before but was always able to coax the food down. This time it wouldn’t budge, even after he was given the Heimlich maneuver.

At the hospital, a doctor told Bankhead she could treat him but he’d have to be sedated and he’d miss the game. That wasn’t an option but the doctor held firm. A phone call was placed to a specialist, who dropped his patients to see Bankhead.

“So they lay me down, no medication, prop my mouth open and he puts a scope in and pushed the food down,” Bankhead recalled. “Then I threw up, which is normal. It was chaos.

“We get back and I run up to our hotel room, got on my uniform and got on the team bus.”

Bankhead came through with a pair of 3-pointers, one of the few Zags to shoot well in GU’s 73-66 loss.

There was another unusual development in the Wyoming game. The first media timeout came several minutes later than normal. After a whistle finally provided a break, the Zags huddled and coaches sent the players back onto the court.

Only four got the memo.

“We’re so good we’re going to take you on with four,” cracked Grier, noting a communication error led to the miscue. “So we’re retreating on defense and we’re yelling, ‘Get in the box.’ I think we actually got a stop and had to burn a timeout to get a guy into the game.”

Music to his ears

Sam Dower Jr. was mesmerized by Southern University’s band prior to the Zags-Jags matchup in 2013 in Salt Lake City.

“We’re the No. 1 team in the country and we come out and get in our layup line,” Dower said. “The Southern band was playing their music and it was the best music I’ve ever heard during warm-ups.

“I’m trying to be serious but that band was so good. I had to nod my head with the music. It just took me over, got me really hyped for the game. The crowd and fans, too.”

Big building

Blake Stepp remembered winning two 2001 NCAA games in Memphis and the team going directly to Atlanta for the next round.

“Everyone thinks we’re from Georgia because we’re wearing our Bulldogs sweatshirts,” he said.

The Zags faced Michigan State in the cavernous Georgia Dome.

“Here I am nine months removed from high school and I didn’t know any better,” Stepp said. “I remember walking into the Dome and it hits you the sheer vastness of the game, the portable court, the half-hollow sound with every dribble.

“I don’t remember measuring the rims (like in the movie Hoosiers) but it definitely was my first time playing on a court and atmosphere like that.”

New school

Jeremy Pargo went contemporary for his favorite off-court memory.

“That’s pretty easy,” he said.”We were never quite able to get over the hump. Watching them beat Xavier in the Elite Eight.”

Pargo returned from his professional season in China a few days before the GU-Xavier game last Saturday.

“At the start of the game, I’m always screaming at Josh (Perkins) to be more aggressive and he came out and made two 3s so I was happy about that,” said Pargo, who watched from his mom’s house in Chicago. “Nigel (Williams-Goss) was aggressive as well. The guy I love is Johnathan Williams. No knock on any of my teammates but he is an athletic monster.”

Instant classic

In this March 22, 2003 file photo, Gonzaga guard Blake Stepp attacks the basket against Arizona during the second overtime of a second round game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament in Salt Lake City. Arizona won the game 96-95. (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
In this March 22, 2003 file photo, Gonzaga guard Blake Stepp attacks the basket against Arizona during the second overtime of a second round game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament in Salt Lake City. Arizona won the game 96-95. (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Ninth-seeded Gonzaga and No. 1 Arizona staged an epic battle with the second-ranked Wildcats escaping 96-95 in double overtime in Salt Lake City in 2003.

“As good a game as I’ve been in at any level,” said Stepp, who scored 25 points and made a pair of 3-pointers to rally the Zags in regulation. “Every possession was back and forth. Tony Skinner tied it (before the buzzer in regulation), it almost felt like we won. Richard Fox was in playing a lot of minutes because Ronny (Turiaf) fouled out late in regulation.”

Stepp had a 35-footer on line but it bounced off the rim at the end of overtime. The Wildcats hung on in the second extra session when Stepp’s bank shot from 8 feet was a bit too hard.

“I remember everybody being so exhausted,” Stepp said. “I remember (Arizona coach) Lute Olson said in my ear, ‘That was one of the best games I’ve ever been involved in.’ It was heat of the moment, but he could put that game in that type of context. I still have people ask me about that game.”

Goodson good in clutch

Pargo was screaming for the ball after Western Kentucky tied the score at 81 but it went to the freshman Goodson. The future NFL cornerback raced down court and hit the game-winner to send GU into the Sweet 16 against North Carolina.

“I looked at a picture of it today where I was actually hugging him,” Pargo said. “I definitely remember that I was calling for the ball and he just dribbled right past me. He made the shot so the right guy had the ball.”

Elite eight bound

Calvary’s tip-in against Florida in 1999 is arguably the most memorable play in program history. Calvary had another game-winner versus Virginia two years later.

“Being young and probably not the brightest bulb on the lamp, I jumped on Dan’s back,” Grier said. “I saw it the other day and I was like, ‘What was I thinking?’ But it was uncharted waters. To get that far, the program had never won an NCAA game and it was only our second tournament.

“All of a sudden we’re 40 minutes from the Final Four and you hadn’t even won a game before.”

Zags descend on Phoenix

Grier, Stepp, Dower, Bankhead and Pargo are all in Phoenix. Stepp purchased tickets a few months ago “just in case.”

“How could I miss this?” Pargo practically shouted over the phone. “We’ve got a big group chat with a bunch of former Zags going. We have a chance.”


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