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Thursday, October 29, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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This Goodbye Was A Big Hello For Toreros

John Blanchette The Spokesman-R

Love the sentiment. Hate those side effects. Goodbyes just take too much out of you, or out of the Gonzaga Bulldogs anyway - even when they’re as restrained and understated as the farewell to Dan Fitzgerald was Saturday evening.

Which was way too understated, as it turned out: San Diego 76, Gonzaga 69.

Who invited these guys, anyway?

There are only two rules for a guest at a potluck like this: bring something hot and leave early. The Toreros got it half right.

They brought Sean Flannery, but didn’t go for their coats until the hosts were under the table.

“You know, I thought we handled the emotion of it,” Fitzgerald mused, “but they handled it better.”

Less of it for them to handle, all things considered.

Think about it. Here were the Zags, in sole possession of first place in the West Coast Conference for the first time this season - given an enormous gift in Pepperdine’s defeat of Santa Clara on Friday. Here they were, with a last opportunity to build momentum for the perilous Santa Clara-Saint Mary’s trip this week. Here, they were - acknowledging the contributions of three seniors on what’s always the most emotional night of the year.

“Compounded by me,” Fitzgerald said.

Only if you’d been in a hoopless coma since November 1995 would you not be aware of Fitzgerald’s well-planned decision to close out a 15-season run as Gonzaga’s head coach this March. Such a long goodbye has been fraught with some urgency - the players now responsible for his memories as well as he for theirs.

And it all came to a head at Martin Centre on Saturday evening.

“We’ve set a tone or tradition of winning in this building,” said John Nemeth, a senior guard who enjoyed a rare start. “And you want to send the seniors out and Fitz as well on a good note. But the past few years, it’s been a tougher game for the home team because there’s so much emotion there.”

Meanwhile, for the Toreros there was the pressure of what? Not fulfilling their potential?

“The pressure was all on them,” agreed Flannery, a fifth-year senior who icily nailed four of five 3-pointers in a 20-point performance. “There was no pressure on us.

“We’re never expected to win here. This is the first time I’ve won here. I don’t think I even know a player who was in the program while I was here who’s won here. It’s a big deal for us.”

Not as big as it probably should be. The Toreros are every bit as big and as talented as the three WCC co-leaders, but are only now beginning to pull themselves out of a self-induced funk that started with losses to Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount on the opening weekend of conference play.

“They remind me of the teams we’ve won it with,” Fitzgerald said. “Both (in a GU loss) down there and up here, anytime we’ve done something, they’ve had an answer for it.”

In particular, the early swell of emotion.

When they were done counting, 4,015 squeezed into The Kennel for this slice of history. Some of them - Jamie Dudley, Matt Stanford, Marc Armstead to name a few - were graduates of Fitzgerald’s unique school of hard knocks. Even a few Kennel Club alums made it back and were allowed to sit in the front row possibly as a reward for their, uh, mature bearing.

And, of course, there were referees - who, as a group, have been waiting for Fitzgerald’s last game a long, long time.

“I was baptized in 1947,” said Byrne Haskins of Richland, “and then I was baptized again in 1982 by Father Fitzgerald. But I’m going to miss him. I think he’s a hell of a guy.”

About 15 seconds into announcer Harv Clark’s introduction of Fitzgerald, the stomping and clapping began - and though it quieted before the intro did, Fitzgerald was moved by the display.

“I used to say that it didn’t matter if we played in an empty gym,” he said. “I’m now of the opinion that it matters very much that we don’t.”

But the audience this night, strangely, leaned more toward mute witness than motivation - at least until the Bulldogs found themselves 13 points down.

“I wanted our players to witness (the pregame ceremony) - the recognition and respect for Dan,” said USD coach Brad Holland. “I think he appreciated it. But I knew we would have to ride a storm of emotion to begin that game, and we did.”

One-hundred sixty-seven of Fitzgerald’s 254 career victories have come in The Kennel, but so have some distressing defeats. There was the overtime loss to Portland in 1981 that probably kept the Zags out of the NIT, the upset at the hands of Pepperdine in the first round of the WCC tournament in 1987 and Santa Clara’s victory last year that kept the Zags from winning the regular-season title outright.

All home finales, by the way.

“There are ups and downs,” Fitzgerald said. “For all the good nights, you’ve got to take some tough nights like tonight on the chin. I’m just happy there’s still some season left for us.”

Just another hint that for Dan Fitzgerald, losing will never be all that traumatic - unless perhaps it’s losing the chance to compete.

, DataTimes MEMO: You can contact John Blanchette by voice mail at 459-5577, extension 5509.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

You can contact John Blanchette by voice mail at 459-5577, extension 5509.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

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