Zags have been in this precarious position before
Tue., Feb. 23, 2016
In 1999 there was no streak, just a driven Gonzaga basketball team that knew it had to win the WCC tournament to make the Big Dance. They did it, and launched a captivating NCAA tournament run that reached the Elite Eight.
In 2003, the streak was young and in jeopardy when Gonzaga fell to San Diego in the WCC title game. The selection committee awarded GU with the first at-large berth in program history.
In 2007, the Zags ran into a schedule with three teams ranked in the top 8, three more in the top 25 and the February suspension of Josh Heytvelt for drug possession. The Zags assumed the role of underdogs and found a way.
In 2011, Gonzaga had two three-game losing streaks and were tied for fourth midway through the 14-game conference schedule. GU won at Saint Mary’s, shared the league title and handled the Gaels again in the WCC championship game.
Those were the closest calls in Gonzaga’s streak of 17 consecutive NCAA tournaments – until now. The Zags (21-7, 13-3 WCC) likely have to win this week at San Diego and BYU to earn a piece of the WCC title. They probably have to win the WCC tournament to punch their NCAA ticket.
“The other day in the locker room we looked back on it and you think all these teams had easy runs. No, there have been multiple years where we had to win certain games or get on a run,” said Mike Hart, GU’s video coordinator who was a sophomore on the 2011 squad. “Coach (Mark) Few was talking about the ’99 team having to win the (WCC) tournament.
“I was thinking about our (2011) team. We definitely weren’t very good at the start of the year but we put it together. The last stretch from halfway through league to the WCC tournament was phenomenal.”
And a huge relief.
“Especially from my standpoint, being the lone senior and seeing what could have happened and seeing the streak end,” guard Steven Gray said at the time. “A big weight has been lifted.”
That team, which included Robert Sacre, Elias Harris, Kelly Olynyk and Sam Dower, won its last eight conference games, edged San Francisco in a WCC semifinal and pulled away late to beat Saint Mary’s. Marquise Carter, who had a strong final five weeks, was the tournament MVP.
“We came together down the stretch and bought in,” Hart said. “And we had good leadership in terms of Steven and Rob. They felt the pressure (of the streaks) but were able to still lead through that.”
GU’s run of 11 straight regular-season championships ended the following year. Gonzaga’s NCAA streak has endured and is tied for fourth longest in the nation.
The 2007 squad, with Derek Raivio, Sean Mallon, David Pendergraft, Jeremy Pargo, Matt Bouldin, Micah Downs and Abdullahi Kuso, was one of only two teams under Few with double-digit losses. Rocked by Heytvelt’s suspension, Gonzaga promptly dropped two of its next three, one to Santa Clara that snapped a 50-game home winning streak and a 78-77 heartbreaker to Memphis.
“When we lost to Memphis we knew our bubble chances were done,” Pendergraft said. “That team was probably in a basketball sense the most fun I had in just overcoming and overachieving because everyone had written us off. We came together as a core group and said, ‘It’s not going to be on us (that the streak ends).”
Several players took turns in the spotlight. Raivio delivered time and time again.
“Guys stepped up and got it done,” Pendergraft said. “It was a like a potluck, you have to bring something to the table. The off-the-court stuff, the leaders kept us together. On the court, you were able to feed off each other.”
In 2003, Gonzaga suffered late-season losses to Loyola Marymount and Portland, Then, playing without Cory Violette (sprainked ankle), GU lost to San Diego in the WCC title game. The school, which hosted an open-to-the-public Selection Sunday party the previous four years, decided not to hold one with the Zags squarely on the bubble.
“In the past, we’ve had the luxury of being an automatic seed so there was no worry,” said Few, after the Zags landed a No. 9 seed. “But I can say that was as tight as I’ve ever been.”’
Gonzaga beat Cincinnati before dropping a double-overtime classic against Arizona.
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