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Gonzaga Basketball

John Blanchette: Gonzaga-UW will do it again here in year 2000

How long until the Huskies will be crazy enough to come back to Spokane and risk taking the kind of abuse they did Tuesday night in an 82-71 loss to the Bulldogs?

Try December 2000.

So, Zags fans, rejoice all you want – all you can stand – in the emergence of Jeremy Eaton as an inside scorer, in the rawboned energy of Casey Calvary, the waterbug magic of Quentin Hall, the nervy foul shooting of Richie Frahm – heroes all in Gonzaga’s rather historic night at the Arena. Congratulate coach Dan Monson for pushing all the right buttons. Groan with anguish Sunday when your team isn’t rewarded with a spot in the Top 25.

Surely this moment belongs in the school’s basketball scrapbook – not the weightiest volume, but gaining heft daily.

But in that vein, the Bulldogs had no bigger hero than Huskies coach Bob Bender.

He came. He saw. His team was conquered.

But, dammit, he came.

Andy Russo and Lynn Nance never would. Marv Harshman used to, but pulled the plug about the time his Huskies got so good playing a Gonzaga gave them nothing to gain.

Bender waited until his team got that good and then came.

If you don’t think that meant the world to Monson, then you weren’t paying attention to his body language on the sideline, the number of times he went to the water cooler or the bark in his voice as he worked the officials as relentlessly as he ever has.

Monson had to have this game for a number of reasons.

He wanted it for just one.

“If you go out on the golf course with a friend, the closer the friend is the more you want to win,” he explained. “Our staff is probably closer to their staff than any other in the country. We had dinner together the last two nights. As a competitor, you want to show your best against the people you respect the most – and that’s them.”

That respect has many roots – starting with the way Bender has rebuilt Huskies basketball. But mostly, the Zags appreciate that he’ll return their calls.

“That’s what made this game huge – he came over here to play us,” said GU assistant Mark Few. “Everybody else big-times us. I call every Pac-10 school to try to get a home and home, every Big Ten, Conference USA, Notre Dame, all of them. Even two-for-ones. But all of them want to do what Kansas did, one game for a guarantee.

“He’s a competitor. He’ll play you on your own golf course once in a while instead of making you come to the country club.”

OK, either the Gonzaga staff plays too much golf or not enough. Certainly they were playing from the blue tees this night, playing the Sweet 16 Cinderellas of last year’s NCAA Tournament.

Ranked 22nd but not for long, the Huskies were on the tail end of a ridiculous road trip that took them from Hawaii to Chicago (to play Connecticut) to Boise, where they rehearsed for this pratfall by losing to the Broncos. They’re missing the crucial services of Donald Watts, but mostly they just don’t have an identity right now. Two players – Rainiersized center Todd MacCulloch and soon–to–be–starting forward Chris Walcott – had any notion of how to play this night.

“Over-rated!” chanted the GU students at the end, almost missing the point.

“This is new for our guys – being an important game for people,” said Bender. “Obviously, we haven’t learned our lesson.”

GU, obviously, was a quicker study. Shooting just 43 percent and getting outrebounded 36-31, they were still on the verge of turning this into a blowout.

Frankly, it meant a lot more to them.

A year ago, the Bulldogs missed out on the NCAA Tournament by losing in the West Coast Conference finals. A 24-win season didn’t get them an at–large berth; no WCC regular-season champ has ever won more and been so snubbed.

Three shocking early-season romps over Tulsa, Mississippi State and Clemson weren’t enough. So Monson went out and scheduled even tougher.

“We feel like we deserve a lot more respect than we get sometimes,” said Calvary.

It’s not that the Zags feel overlooked individually, but collectively.

“It’s not like I was angry that I didn’t get recruited by Washington,” Calvary said. “But I’m friends with Dan Dickau and Mike Johnson and Grant Leep – lots of their guys I played with for years. When I see them this summer, at least I can know they didn’t drill us out of our place.”

And the fact is, beating UW and WSU – no matter how great or ordinary they might be – simply means more than upsetting a Clemson or a Memphis, rankings aside.

“Beating Washington and Washington State is always a measuring stick people are going to have for Gonzaga,” said Monson.

“And when you beat Clemson up in Alaska, you’re celebrating with 12 other people. You beat somebody like Washington here, it’s important for kids to be in front of their parents and friends and share something like this with them.”

Of course, you can’t share something like this if someone doesn’t give you the opportunity.

So why does Bender?

“I think you’re supposed to do these things,” he shrugged. “One, we’re not a program that can just demand people come to our place. Secondly, this can make you better.

“People say we have nothing to win. Well, when you win, you gain something. When you lose, you lose something. It doesn’t matter who you play – I felt as bad after losing to Connecticut as I did after these two losses.”

The Bulldogs, meanwhile, couldn’t have felt better.

“When’s the next time,” Monson wondered, “Gonzaga’s going to get a chance at a ranked team in Spokane?”

Better question: when’s the next time Gonzaga is the ranked team in Spokane?