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It all started with a tip-in: An oral history of Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament

(Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
By John Blanchette and Jim Meehan The Spokesman-Review

It’s one for the generations now.

Gonzaga’s residence in the NCAA Basketball Tournament extends to 20 consecutive years now with the Bulldogs’ placement in the 2018 bracket, meaning there’s actually a player on the Bulldogs roster who wasn’t yet born when Casey Calvary’s tip-in against Florida started running on a loop in the memory of every Zags fan.

Twenty years.

Kansas (29), Duke (23) and Michigan State (21) are the only schools with longer active streaks; North Carolina (27) and Arizona (25) lost streaks earlier this century. So did Indiana (18), Kentucky (17) and UCLA (15).

In other words, the programs that pretty much wrote the history of college hoops.

Figuratively, Gonzaga basketball went a long way in just that first year – 1999 – and even further since.

Let’s retrace the journey with those who lived it, and those who watched it up close.

‘It’s pronounced Gone-ZAG-uh’


The metaphor of “drinking from the firehose” may have been coined simply for the splash Gonzaga made – and the general chaos surrounding their introduction to college basketball’s mainstream, which didn’t know how to pronounce it much less where it was. And it started with the bracketing: the Bulldogs were assigned to the first-round site at KeyArena in Seattle – a near home-court advantage for a No. 10 seed.

Mike Roth (Gonzaga athletic director): “In our one bit of planning, we actually had the ticket people at KeyArena and with the hosts, the University of Washington, dialed up and ready to go. As soon as our name came up, we were on the phone and bought every ticket they would sell us – maybe 1,200 or 1,250. Your allotment is only 400. Then we spent Sunday through Thursday trying to figure out who’d get those tickets.”

Then it got weirder. Gonzaga’s opponent, Minnesota, suspended four players the morning of the opener as part of an academic scandal that would take down coach Clem Haskins. The Bulldogs blew a big lead to let the undermanned Gophers back within a basket with 100 seconds left before Richie Frahm saved the day with a clutch 3-pointer en route to a 75-63 win. Then came the true stunner – an 82-74 upset of No. 2 seed Stanford, that saw the Zags bludgeon the Cardinal on the glass despite Casey Calvary’s foul problems and having to send slender Mark Spink in to lean on Stanford’s burly Mark Madsen. Zagmania had been unleashed.

Dennis Patchin (radio voice of the Zags, 1997-2001): “The thing that opened people’s eyes was the win over Stanford. I just remember the noise in that building. Gonzaga fans honestly thought everything was gravy – they’d won an NCAA tournament game that nobody ever thought they’d win. The Stanford game, they start strong and it just got louder and louder, and that’s a big reason they won. If that game is in California or Boise or Salt Lake City, I don’t think they beat Stanford. I think the crowd willed them to that one.”

Mike Shields (alumnus and longtime Gonzaga fan): “That whole weekend was bizarre. The Limerick Sister City Society had their annual St. Patrick’s Day party on Friday and I’d committed to prepare food. So I drove over to the Thursday game in Seattle and they won, so I drove back and cooked corned beef for 120 people. Then I drove back for Saturday’s game and they win again. I don’t think I slept all weekend. We had an Irish band from Victoria entertaining at the party and they asked, ‘We keep seeing these Go Gonzaga signs – what is Gonzaga?’ One even said they thought Gonzaga was an exotic dancer.”

Well, a dancer, anyway. On the Zags went to Phoenix for the Sweet 16. No one embraces a Cinderella like March Madness, and the embrace was doubly tight because the Bulldog players were all-tournament in the interview room. Whether it was Matt Santangelo’s droll observations or Calvary’s wisecracks or Axel Dench’s offbeat Australian vibe, the Bulldogs filled notebooks and air time. Asked how the team was a reflection of coach Dan Monson, Calvary noted that “our coach does a lot better with the women than we do,” at which point Monson joked, “Casey has been suspended.”

Matt Santangelo (guard, 1997-00): “We had no frame of reference. It was naiveté. We didn’t know we weren’t supposed to be winning and weren’t supposed to be having fun with all of it, the experience and the press and the spotlight. We were so happy that someone wanted to talk to us. We had great things to say! At least we thought we had great things to say. It all got uncorked at the same time. We had all this pent-up material we got to share with the national media.”

They didn’t go quietly. Calvary’s late tip-in beat Florida to reach the Elite Eight, and the Zags had eventual national champion UConn in a scrap before too many shots didn’t fall. But America had discovered college basketball’s ultimate mom-and-pop store.

Steve Bergum (Spokesman-Review beat writer, 1996-2007): “Quentin Hall epitomized the mentality that was needed to get that thing started. No size, not a great shooter, but the confidence was off the charts. When Calvary tipped in the basket to beat Florida, Quentin said, ‘If he hadn’t got it, I was going to.’ He’s 5-foot-8! He’s not going to get that ball. But he thought he was.”

Mike Roth: “Between days at each site there’s a thing called the transition meeting, to prepare the schools who have a chance to go to the next round. So it’s me and (sports information director) Oliver Pierce and (assistant AD) Mike Hogan and the gal who worked for our travel company – not even for Gonzaga, but our travel agent. UConn comes into the room and it’s 10 guys in black suits – they had assistants for their assistants. And they’re talking about 500 hotel rooms and 5,000 tickets and how you need security on your hotel room floor and we’re deer in the headlights. (Former Santa Clara coach) Carroll Williams was on the committee that year and he grabs me after and said, ‘Mike, if you guys win, you’re going to need a lot of help.’”

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No one-trick doggy


If they were an overnight sensation, the Zags were intent on not staying just overnight. In 2000, that meant winning the West Coast Conference tournament just to assure a return trip to the NCAAs and not to the NIT as in 1998.

Mark Few (head coach, 2000-2018): “It was Casey’s cry all week. He said, ‘We’re not going back to Laramie.’”

What followed was only slightly less incredible than the Elite Eight run in 1999: back-to-back trips to the Sweet 16 with victories over the likes of ninth-ranked St. John’s, among others, before both journeys ended against rugged Big Ten customers Purdue and Michigan State.

Matt Santangelo: “That St. John’s game the second year was funny with all the New York press. You walk into the interview room and it was like we’d just kicked their dog. They could not fathom how this upstart school went against the mecca and won.”

Dennis Patchin: “After they got beat by Michigan State and got killed on the glass, that’s when Mark said we have to get some bigger guys and be more active on the boards. They bring in Ronny Turiaf and that opens some of the international recruiting doors, too.”

Ryan Floyd (guard, 1997-2000): “I think we validated Gonzaga as a winning program, but more than anything, for smaller schools off the radar, validating the idea that you can beat those top-tier teams on the biggest stage. You don’t have to be on TV, you don’t have to be one of those teams to win in March. Any school, any size, any background, with walk-ons, local guys, whether blue chips or not, you can go out and win.”

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Gonzaga’s NCAA tournament success began opening more recruiting doors both regionally (Blake Stepp, Cory Violette), internationally (Ronny Turiaf) and on the transfer market, from which Dan Dickau led the Zags back to the Sweet 16 in 2001 and to a No. 6 ranking in the final AP poll in 2002.

Richard Fox (center, 2003-04): “We’d played Gonzaga when I was at Colorado in a tournament in Hawaii – beat them, actually – and I just remember being really impressed with how they played and the chemistry they had and that these guys must be fun to play with. We didn’t have that at Colorado.”

But the fun took a faceplant in 2002, first when the selection committee slotted the Zags with a No. 6 seed, sent them to high-altitude Albuquerque against Mountain West champ Wyoming, which does its work at 7,000 feet. The Bulldogs conspired in their own doom by shooting just 26.8 percent on field goals.

Brian Michaelson (guard, 2001-05; assistant coach 2011-18): “That (Wyoming) team was probably underseeded and had a lot of talent.”

Tom Hudson (radio voice of the Zags, 2003-18): “In the early years on Selection Sunday the school always had a big party with the public and that was the year they got a six seed and everyone was like, ‘What the heck just happened?’ The disappointment was obvious and it was one where you felt, ‘What else do we have to do to get respect?’ And I think that kind of pervaded during the week. Plus that was a really good Wyoming team and not the matchup you wanted. It was just a hard lesson.”

Dan Dickau (guard, 2001-02): “We just had some shots that didn’t drop and instead of just happening to one or two guys, like it sometimes happens, it happened to everybody.”

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Instant classic


The Zags didn’t make it to the second weekend in 2003, either, but after an opening-round win over Cincinnati they did something that was, frankly, better: they engaged in one of the tournament’s great games, a 96-95 double-overtime loss to top-seeded and second-ranked Arizona in the second round that featured, well, everything. The Wildcats’ roster included six players who would log a combined 50 seasons in the NBA – including Channing Frye, Luke Walton and Andre Iguodala – and still the Zags were within a Blake Stepp runner that banked too hard off glass and rim of beating them.

Richard Fox: “I had broken my hand earlier in the season and missed some games and when I got back they had a three-man rotation going up front so there wasn’t much time for me. Cory (Violette) had twisted an ankle in the semifinal of the WCC tournament, so I played quite a bit in that one – and it was easily the worst game I’ve ever played. So I’d been at Colorado where there was no hope of being in the NCAA tournament and here I was at Gonzaga and I knew I wasn’t going to play. I think I got in against Cincinnati for less than a minute at the end of the first half. And I was upset. But then I kind of had this epiphany talking to my dad on the phone and thinking, ‘Hey, I’m not going to ruin my experience of being in the tournament. I just have to go with it.’ And during warmups for Arizona, I was loose and more confident and I was hitting everything. (Assistant coach) Leon Rice came up to me and said, ‘You’re ready to play, aren’t you?’ I think the biggest reason I got to play is that Leon had a feeling I would help us.”

Mike Shields: “I drove down to that game in Salt Lake and I got to the point I was so nervous I thought, ‘This game’s got to end or I’m going to die of a heart attack.’”

Richard Fox: “I’d be hard-pressed to remember a game when I was as physically and emotionally drained. But you knew you’d been part of something pretty unique, and eventually that took the sting off it a bit.”

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Stumped for an encore


Gonzaga’s early tournament success had convinced some new to the adventure that it was a birthright, and more first-weekend exits against Nevada in 2004 – in Seattle, no less – and Bobby Knight-coached Texas Tech in 2005 suggested the Bulldogs had hit their heads on the ceiling. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Sean Mallon (forward, 2004-07): “We had a lot of confidence heading into that (Nevada) game. We had tested, experienced seniors and young guys who were playing well. That was disappointing because it felt like it was a good draw for us and we had a lot of fans there.”

Richard Fox: “Nevada had three pros on that team, but we could not have played worse. I know Mark (Few) wouldn’t agree with this, but sometimes a late-season loss helps – it snaps you back and dials you in again a little bit. We hadn’t lost in two and a half months. We almost did against Santa Clara (in the WCC semifinals) except Ronny had such a huge game. Some of the details were getting lost and we just weren’t as dialed in and maybe the streak was weighing on us.”

Sean Mallon: “We’d heard a lot of Bobby Knight stories because Nathan Doudney had played for him. I don’t think he shook hands (with the players) afterwards. He did with the coaches and then turned around and walked to the locker room. I don’t feel like they were great. You feel bad because they didn’t get our best shot.”

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‘Like touring with the Stones’


That was coach Mark Few’s description of the 2006 season with the nation’s leading scorer and College Player of the Year Adam Morrison. He was an attention magnet on and off the court, but the ensemble around him was great, too – enough to win 29 games, and the Bulldogs broke back through to the Sweet 16 with a win over Indiana.

Sean Mallon: “That was one of my better college games. That was a big deal for us. That group had been together for a while and it was a big deal to make it past the first weekend. We were really excited and it was a big sense of relief.”

Steve Bergum: “Adam brought out crowds on the road that were just crazy. At Santa Clara, fans are right behind press row, looking over your shoulder. I’m getting a start on my story during the game and instead of ‘SCU’ I accidentally type ‘SUC’ and this guy behind starts yelling, ‘Suck? We don’t suck! You suck! Plus you’re a bald, (terrible) writer.’”

It seemed like bigger things were coming. The Zags led UCLA in the Sweet 16 game by 10 points with five minutes to play when it all came unraveled, and two steals in the last 12 seconds of the game gave the Bruins a miraculous 73-71 victory – and left Morrison in tears in a heap on the floor.

Sean Mallon: “Adam was really upset, I remember that clearly, and we go back a lot of years. For me, it was trying to make sure he was OK. It was pretty quiet (in the locker room), a sense of, ‘Can’t believe that just happened.’”

Tom Hudson: “The odd thing is, Mo’s been my partner on the air all this year and we’ve never talked about that game. I haven’t quite figured out how to bring it up. He talks about how he lost just two league games and he still remembers them and that’s the worst part of his experience at Gonzaga, losing those two league games. At the PK80 this year when Gonzaga was up (on Texas) and the comeback happened, I was thinking, ‘Do I bring this up or not?’”

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A scholarship is room, board, books, tuition and fees – and now a “cost of attendance” stipend. But if you make it into March Madness, there’s gift gear to be had: apparel, shoes, electronics, tech toys.

Brian Michaelson: “When I played, maybe if we were fortunate we’d get a pair of shoes. Now guys get double-digit shoes every year. It was probably a bigger deal for us back then because you received less during the year. We’d get like five (pairs) a year.”

Silas Melson (guard, 2015-18): “(The best is) Final Four stuff, easy. Kobe Bryant came in and handed us a pair of shoes. The shoes could have looked like dirt, but if Kobe Bryant hands me a pair of shoes, face to face … that’s easy. When you get later into the tourney it starts getting better. Freshman year I think we got virtual reality glasses when we got to the Elite Eight. I actually still use those sometimes when I’m bored and play games on them. If you want to get rewarded, you’ve got to stay in the tournament.”

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The great interlude


Good, and sometimes great, basketball was played in this era. The Zags weathered Josh Heytvelt’s high-profile drug arrest and suspension in 2007 and won the WCC tournament again to keep the NCAA appearance streak alive, but were bounced in the first round and again in 2008. From 2010 through 2014 came five straight first-round wins – and five second-round eliminations, two to No. 1 seeds. But the Zags also squandered one of those themselves. In 2013, they climbed to No. 1 in the polls and were on the bracket’s top line, only to fall to under-regarded Wichita State, which used the upset to launch itself to the Final Four.

Tom Hudson: “No matter where they were seeded, they always seemed to win a game. I go to the golf thing with Phil Mickelson and people say, ‘Hey, he chokes all the time.’ Well, I think it’s more that he’s putting himself in a position to win and if you’re that good, eventually you’ll break through. I know it got irritating for them to have to answer the questions, but you don’t want the narrative being that you can’t get out of the first weekend, even as special as it is just to keep making the tournament.”

The exception came in the middle – the 2009 Sweet 16 team, the Zags surviving a scare from Western Kentucky when freshman guard Demetri “Meech” Goodson zoomed full-court for the winning layup in an 83-81 win in Portland.

Jack Quigg (Kennel Club president, 2009-10): “We were watching at a house party and when Meech took that ball full court – the fastest I’ve ever seen anyone cover that much ground with a basketball – I was standing in a doorway and I jumped up and smashed my head on the door frame and just fell to the floor. I’m down there holding my head and it hurt so bad, but my buddies are banging pans and piling on top of me. It felt like we won the national championship.”

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If 2013 ended with a disappointment, it was clear the Zags were on to something when it came to team construction. That something was more fully realized in 2015, with transfer Kyle Wiltjer playing the Kelly Olynyk role, guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. two years older, strongmen Przemek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis inside – and the new wrinkle, graduate transfer Byron Wesley. Together they finally replicated the 1999 team’s destiny: a return to the Elite Eight on the strength of a 74-62 victory over UCLA.

Matt Santangelo (radio analyst, 2011-2017): “I saw Gary Bell in the hotel lobby and there was a great sense of pride. Maybe more so than anyone else, I knew what he was feeling. I know what that feeling is after that game and I know what today feels like. That’s a neat thing. No one else has done this.”

Silas Melson (guard, 2015-18): “That year was really memorable being around guys like Kevin and Gary who didn’t get past first weekend in their first few years. For them to get that accomplishment, that was a heck of a thing to witness.”

Richard Fox (TV color analyst): “In my mind, something felt different after that 2015 run.”

Except that 2016 was fraught with anxiety – Karnowski’s career-threatening back injury, a lack of depth and a guard rotation that struggled with roles and consistency. A Senior Night loss to BYU looked to be the crushing blow – until the Zags rallied once again to keep the NCAA streak alive, and then revived some of that old low-seed magic and stormed back to the Sweet 16.

Brian Michaelson: “Going into Vegas, that team wasn’t going to get in (without an automatic bid). In the whole 20 years, maybe two or three teams had to win (the WCC tournament). That was a special time – just the joy and relief of what they did. And they played so well in Denver – really took it to Seton Hall and Utah. Utah was probably up there with the top three or four games we’ve ever played in the NCAA tournament.”

Josh Perkins (guard, 2015-18): “People didn’t think we were supposed to win, and to go out against Seton Hall and win by 20 – and then win by 20 again against Utah, a really good team, third seed with a player like Jakob Poeltl, just showed we had a chip on our shoulder and a point to prove. And doing that in my home town put a smile on my face.”

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Finally, Four


What else can be said, really, about Gonzaga’s clearing the big hurdle and reaching not just the Final Four, but the national championship game? Yes, there’s one more step that can be taken. But after the joyful dominance of a 37-win season, the hardscrabble survival in the Sweet 16 against West Virginia – thanks to Josh Perkins’ out-of-nowhere blocked shot and Jordan Mathews’ winning 3 – and the romp over Xavier that sent GU to Phoenix, it’s difficult to imagine a basketball program that enjoyed its crowning achievement more, or better. More than 70 former players and coaches made their way to Phoenix, and Few made sure all were embraced as true forebears.

Ryan Floyd: “I’ve not been to a single NCAA tournament game since I played. Every year, I kind of hold out – ‘I’ll wait until we go to the Final Four.’ This just cements what we started and the things every team has done leading up to this.”

Mark Few: “What was nice was seeing acquaintances and guys you come across in 28 years in the profession, whether it’s a JUCO coach who helped you with some obscure guy in a tournament in Wyoming when you were a snot-nosed assistant or gave you a ride somewhere. Because every coach from every level goes to the Final Four and it’s like all these pieces of your career come together. But mostly having those former players and guys who’d coached with me and shared the journey was unbelievably powerful.”

Josh Perkins: “I don’t think I’ve ever got from point A to point B so fast (on that blocked shot). I knew something needed to happen. I either had to make them prove it from the line or jump higher than ever to block it. And then to see Jordan’s shot right after that go down – it was like it was meant for us to be there.”

Tom Hudson: “Matt started crying a couple of times at the end of that Xavier game just because of how proud he was and it was amazing to hear his thoughts on something that he helped create. He and Josh Perkins had an embrace and a moment after that game that I’ll never forget.”

Brian Michaelson: “There’s nothing that comes close to touching last year.”

Unless, of course, it happens this year.