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Zags, ’Cats relive 2003 overtime thriller

Zags’ Blake Stepp, left, and UA’s Salim Stoudamire battled in ’03. (Associated Press)
Zags’ Blake Stepp, left, and UA’s Salim Stoudamire battled in ’03. (Associated Press)

SAN DIEGO – Mark Few called it epic. Cory Violette labeled it an instant classic.

It was such a special game that Arizona coach Sean Miller sent late-night texts Few’s way when a replay of the 2003 NCAA tournament battle between the Wildcats and Zags aired on ESPN Classic a few weeks ago.

“We were texting back and forth and laughing about it,” Few said. “And he said (Friday) we jinxed each other by doing that, we ended up playing each other again.”

Top-seeded Arizona beat No. 9 Gonzaga 96-95 in double overtime in Salt Lake City. Eleven years later, Violette, now an analyst on the GU radio network, says “people talk about that game all the time.

“The most memorable game of my career,” said Violette, who had eight rebounds, six points and four assists. “At the time we didn’t realize it. We looked at it as just another game against a good team. We thought we could beat them and this is how we were going to do it.”

Gonzaga led the back-and-forth contest 44-41 at the half. The Wildcats went in front by eight in the second half when Blake Stepp hit a 3-pointer and a rare 4-point play to rally the Zags. Tony Skinner soared over two Wildcats for a tip-in that tied the score at the end of regulation.

Arizona outscored Gonzaga 7-6 in the second overtime. Stepp’s leaning, 7-foot bank shot just before the buzzer was just a touch too hard.

“That last moment was kind of frozen in time on the inside cover of Sports Illustrated,” Violette said. “You kind of close your eyes and think, ‘What if Blake made that shot?’, but at the same time we played the best basketball we could as a team and executed incredibly well.

“Nobody looks back and says woulda, coulda, shoulda. Most of the games you play in life, you say, ‘I could have done this or that.’ ”

Violette sees parallels between the 2003 contest and today’s round-of-32 showdown at Viejas Arena.

“We’re an eight seed, we were a nine in 2003,” he said. “Arizona was a one seed both times. They were pretty well loaded and if you look at this Arizona team they have 3-4 guys that are locks for the NBA. In some people’s eyes we were underachievers. We lost in the WCC Tournament and we were sitting there during the Selection Show and we just jumped for joy when we got a nine seed.

“This (GU) team lost some games that people thought they shouldn’t have lost. I don’t know that this is an underachieving team, but we’re a little spoiled in Spokane.”

More ’Cats, Dogs

Gonzaga and Arizona will play each other the next two seasons, beginning next year in Tucson.

The teams have met four times with Arizona winning three. Gonzaga won the last encounter, 71-60, in Seattle in Dec., 2011.

“This counts as a home game (for Arizona), seeing all the Arizona-clad fans around here,” Bulldogs coach Mark Few joked. “It’s good. We’ve kind of been the two marquee teams out West for about the last 10 years.”

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