Come this evening, Gonzaga University will be one of only 16 teams left standing in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
Imagine. Tiny GU in the Sweet 16. It might never get any better than this for the Bulldogs.
But it could – especially if you buy into what Stanford coach Mike Montgomery was saying moments after GU had blindsided his Cardinal 82-74 in the second round of the West Regional at KeyArena.
“I don’t think there’s any question,” Montgomery said, when asked if the Bulldogs are a legitimate Sweet 16 team. “I felt coming into the tournament that they were the team in the bracket that was the scary team, because a lot of people don’t know much about them.
“If they play like they did tonight, they’re capable of beating a lot of people.”
Gonzaga, behind the sniper-like shooting of its backcourt players and the inspired play of its undersized front line, battled through some early foul problems to solidify its standing as one of the surprise teams in this year’s tournament.
The 10th-seeded Bulldogs (27-6) will face sixth-seeded and 23rd-ranked Florida (22-8) Thursday at America West Arena in Phoenix, Ariz., for a chance to advance to the Elite Eight. The time of the game has yet to be determined.
“It’s a great team that presents a lot of challenges,” Gonzaga coach Dan Monson said of Florida, which finished third in the Southeast Conference during the regular season and beat Weber State 82-74 in Saturday’s other West Regional matchup. “But when you get to this level, you know you’re going to play great teams.”
The Bulldogs certainly played one in Stanford. But with backup front-liners Axel Dench and Mark Spink forced to play crucial minutes because of early fouls whistled against Jeremy Eaton and Casey Calvary, they somehow managed to outrebound the bigger, stronger Cardinal 47-33 and knock down 11 of 20 3-point attempts.
The inside-out attack was simply more than Stanford could handle, and Montgomery was quick to admit as much.
“You don’t have to look farther than the statistics to see where the problems were,” he said. “You have to shoot the ball and they did. Everybody was calling them small, but they were clearly the aggressor.
“They got after us, blocked us off and took us right off the court.”
Matt Santangelo was again the top gun for GU. The junior guard scored 22 points and made a couple of huge baskets shortly after Stanford had battled back from an early 20-8 deficit to tie the game at 49 with 11:18 remaining.
But he received plenty of help from backcourt running mates Richie Frahm and Quentin Hall, who combined for 29 points, and a cast of lesser-knowns like Spink, Dench, Mike Nilson and Ryan Floyd, who outscored Stanford’s bench 15-2 and outrebounded it 14-2.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Monson said of the contribution from his reserves. “We just didn’t throw in reserves that haven’t been there before. These kids have contributed.”
Still, few could have expected Spink, a spindly 6-foot-8, 192-pound sophomore, to hold up for 14 minutes and contribute five rebounds and three points against a Stanford front line that had no one under 6-9 or weighing less than 235.
Monson said he warned his players before the game that Stanford would pound the ball inside to put foul pressure on Eaton and Calvary.
“Fortunately, with our team makeup, we had enough bodies to survive,” Monson added.
“They might not be the heaviest guys, but they had a lot of heart,” said Mark Madsen, the Cardinal’s 6-9, 235-pound junior forward, who had 15 points and 14 rebounds. “And that goes a long way.
“They definitely played great defense in the post. They worked hard. Give them credit for the way they played and the heart that they had inside.”
Arthur Lee, who led Stanford with 24 points, also had plenty of praise for GU, which trailed only once, at 1-0.
“You really can’t find a weakness in their lineup,” he said. “Our hats are off to them. They came out and were ready, and they were confident.”
The Bulldogs used a couple of 3-pointers from Calvary to gain control early, but let Stanford scratch back to within 34-30 at halftime. Calvary and Eaton were both on the bench with two fouls during the final 9 minutes of the first half.
Stanford made a nice run to tie it briefly midway through the second half, but Santangelo hit a tough hanger in the lane and a 3-pointer from the right wing to put GU back ahead 61-54 with 5:22 remaining. The Bulldogs flinched momentarily in the final 2 minutes, turning the ball over twice against the Cardinal’s desperate full-court pressure. But they made 12 of 14 free throws during that same span to lock down the victory.
“There isn’t anybody we can’t play with if we play together,” Monson said in an effort to shun the Cinderella label the media seems so eager to hang on his West Coast Conference champions. “I’m just so pleased for these guys.
“It’s been a long road for them to get some recognition. Now we’ve got another week for people to learn how to pronounce Gonzaga and realize this isn’t a freak show, but a pretty good basketball team.”