TUCSON, Ariz. – When it was over, when he heaved the ball nearly the length of the court in desperation with no time to even utter a prayer, Ronny Turiaf let himself melt to the floor, his knees finding his elbows.
He’d have dug himself an escape tunnel if he could have, but only managed to tug the front of his jersey up over his face instead, the celebration erupting around him.
Somebody else’s celebration.
“I was thinking, ‘Here we go again,’ ” Turiaf said.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs used to be so good at this. They wrote the book and revised it for second and third printings. They used to make it look, if not easy, then at least destined, this process of negotiating the NCAA Tournament maze of going from 64 teams to 16.
They used to be so good at it and now it’s so damnably hard.
They have come up short in the most exhilarating way, if there is such a thing – the double-overtime classic against Arizona. They have been humbled by a hotter, hungrier underdog like Nevada a year ago. And now they have lost in possibly the most painful way, falling 71-69 to Texas Tech on Saturday in a game that looked for the longest time like victory.
“It’s like a nail in the heart,” said guard Erroll Knight.
Or maybe it’s not so much pain as it is the shock, the cruel finality.
“It hits you like a big brick right to your forehead,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, “no matter where you are or how far you’ve been or what your expectations were.”
The expectation about noon Mountain Time on Saturday was that the Zags would have to parry with their professors about a few more days of missed classes because of a date in the Albuquerque regional this week. They had run Bob Knight’s greyhounds up and down the court, punished them on the glass, put the brakes on their motion offense – leaving Knight to try and find satisfaction by scarring the eardrums of the three referees.
Then – and it seemed to happen in mere seconds – the Zags’ 13-point lead was gone and their fate rested on the dangerous proposition of punch-and-counterpunch.
And the Zags absorbed too many of the former and missed too many of the latter.
They couldn’t keep Tech guards Ronald Ross and Jarrius Jackson – or the unsung forwards – out of the seams and pockets of their zone. They couldn’t get center J.P. Batista to finish like the monster he’d been all season. They saw Derek Raivio suffer through another shooting funk with overtones of Blake Stepp’s haunted NCAA performances. And they watched in disbelief as Turiaf missed 6 of 9 free throws.
Finally, Adam Morrison – who had come up with every big bucket this month – actually missed one.
Which left Turiaf on the floor, his college career over, being consoled by a gracious Ross.
“Last year I let my team down because of some freaking – excuse me – some foul trouble,” Turiaf said. “This year, I couldn’t make free throws. I did the same things I’ve done all year and it just kept going in and out, long, in and out, long. I try to rebound, try to block shots, play defense and score down low. I wish I could have had that extra step, that extra effort and made those free throws.
“It was just awful.”
And still it was almost within Turiaf’s grasp. When Morrison’s 3-pointer with 12 seconds left missed, it was Turiaf grappling with Tech’s Devonne Giles for the rebound. Giles managed to control it enough to call timeout while he was falling out of bounds, though every Zag will forever believe otherwise.
“But that’s college basketball,” Turiaf said. “You play hard and the game comes down to some quick plays.”
And quick resolutions – good and bad – to some long-held dreams.
The bummer of the finish to the 2003-04 season was one incidental reason in the rucksack of more substantial ones Turiaf had for returning to Gonzaga for his senior season and not opting for an early stab at the NBA draft.
That the journey ended at the same milepost will not fill him with regrets. Indeed, he could even manage a small joke about it.
“I’m not going to miss basketball that much because basketball sucks right now,” he said. “I wish I was playing soccer or something.”
But what he insisted Saturday was that his feeling would have been the same whether the Zags had lost in the first round or the championship game. It wasn’t the increments in the bracket that mattered, but that he wouldn’t share all the important and goofy moments with his 13 teammates.
“I didn’t just come back to go to the Sweet 16 by myself,” is how he put it.
Was it worth coming back?
“Can you find a word that’s more than ‘worth it?’ he said. “It was way more than that. I can’t even put it into words. People say, OK, you come back for your senior year and you put that cash aside and whatever, but people don’t understand that the money matters to me but that’s not what I’m looking for. So many people have that striving to get more money, to do this, do that. When I’m going to die, I’m not going to need that money. I’m not going to go in heaven and buy myself a pair of sneakers. I’m just trying to have some fun with the people I love the most.
“Being around these guys and sharing life together – that’s a part of me. I’m going to leave a part of me in Spokane and I’m not looking forward to it.”
Nor will any of the Zags look forward to the inevitable hangover of this. Three of their last four trips to the NCAAs have ended with them victims of teams seeded lower than they were. There is the germ of a stigma there, fair or not.
It’s mostly not. People are comforted by – and remain steadfast to – the absolutes of mathematics, but there is no math fuzzier than the seeding of the NCAA Tournament. The “good old days” of Gonzaga in the tournament should be evidence enough of that.
“That’s just crazy,” said Few of the notion that he needed to be disappointed beyond the sheer emptiness of losing. “You can never feel bad for getting this far.
“We represented ourselves very well all year. We deserved a three seed – and we played like a three seed today. Tech had to play great to beat us and they did down the stretch. That’s the tournament. People don’t realize how hard it is to get to and to win games in. There are just so many good basketball teams out there.”
And all but one will have something in common.
“There’s going to be one team left that gets to feel like a champion,” said Erroll Knight. “There’s 62 other teams out there who are all going to feel like we feel. And you have to be a great program, with great players, just to experience it.”
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