Moments before the Gonzaga basketball team put the finishing touch on its historic 77-73 win over South Carolina on Saturday, a sea of young faces and flailing arms jumped to the Zags’ trademark tune.
“WE ARE GU” they screamed as the floor of the John J. Hemmingson Center shook.
Gonzaga freshman Killian Tillie hit two free throws to put the game out of reach and the crowd transformed into a roaring throng of blue and red. Students jumped in each others’ arms. Some buried their faces in their hands and others took selfies as they cheered and stood on their chairs.
“I’m on freakin cloud nine. I’ve been watching the Zags since I was a kid,” said Adam Smith, a junior marketing major from Seattle who attended the game sporting face paint and waving an oversized Jordan Mathews head. “To see this happen while I’m in school is absurd. I’ll be an old man telling my grandkids about this.”
Hundreds of students spilled out of the Hemmingson Center and began dancing and knocking giant beach balls into the air. Students rode on each others’ shoulders. Some walked across the street to pose for photographs with campussecurity officers, who were smiling too.
Dessira Halbach, 19, was so excited after the win that she had to ask her friend to spell her last name for a reporter.
“I cried afterward,” said Halbach, a sophomore psychology and sociology major from Tucson, Arizona. “It’s amazing to be a part of this community and this school. WE MADE IT TO THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP!”
Halbach grew up in Arizona Wildcats country and many of her friends attend that traditional basketball power in the Pac-12 Conference.
“All my friends told me we couldn’t do it – that we weren’t good enough,” Halbach said. “I’m going to call them right now and rub it in their faces. It’s awesome.”
Outside, one dude with the physique to pull it off ripped off his shirt. He ran over and gave a high-five to the Rev. Michael Maher, a Jesuit priest who teaches history at Gonzaga.
“They are behaving very well, now,” Maher said immediately after the win. As he spoke, he turned and smashed a huge beach ball back into the dancing students. “I teach a lot of the athletes. It’s amazing how these kids realize this is part of the program. It’s exciting for us.”
Ryan Brown, an 18-year-old freshman computer science major from California, stood with his girlfriend and watched hundreds of his classmates run around in a mass celebration.
“It was absolutely crazy,” Brown said of how Gonzaga pulled away late. “When they lost the lead, we weren’t too happy. But they won. They deserved it.”
An hour before game time, students walked out of houses with wide-mouth cups securely affixed to their hands. Others hustled to join the block-long line to get into the iconic Jack and Dan’s Bar and Grill, which was already at capacity.
As the line waited, a car drove north on Hamilton Street and stopped at the intersection at Sharp Avenue. A fan pushed his head out the window and yelled “WOOOW” and promptly took a swig from a whiskey bottle.
“It’s a great deal. Everybody is happy. Everybody is excited,” said co-owner Kevin MacDonald.
On a normal Saturday, MacDonald said he would have five employees on hand. On Final Four Saturday, he had 15 helpers slinging piles of nachos, burgers and quesadillas.
The lineup to get into the restaurant, considered by many to be ground zero of Gonzaga fandom, started at about 9 a.m., even though the bar didn’t open until 10.
Chanse Ward, a 22-year-old GU graduate student from Boise, said he and his crew arrived at 11:45 a.m. to find Jack and Dan’s packed.
“It was insane. When Gonzaga plays on the road, we are here. When they are home, we are at the Kennel. That’s how we do it,” he said.
He joined the fans as Gonzaga and the Gamecocks played an even first half until the Bulldogs built a nine-point cushion before halftime.
“It’s a special moment for all the students and Spokane. It’s fun to be able to watch,” Ward said. “It’s like living history. It’s special to be a part of it.”
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