The crowd stood in the house that the Zags built Monday and stared at big screens. The fans pulled at their hair with strained looks as their larger-than-life heroes tried one last time to topple the enemy Tar Heels for the national championship.
But Nigel Williams-Goss’ 3-point shot attempt missed and the energy inside the McCarthey Athletic Center deflated with an icy thud.
“I’ve actually never been to the Kennel when they lost,” said 19-year-old Caroline Hamilton, a freshman from Mercer Island, Washington. “It’s sad to see your favorite player … no one wants to see him cry.”
The Bulldogs held a 65-63 lead with less than two minutes to play, but North Carolina scored the last eight points for the 71-65 victory.
It hurt, like crawling within sight of the top of Mount Everest only to be told that you have to come back and climb it again. That climb starts now, said Benji Wolfenberger, a junior business major from Westport, Washington.
“Having it all end here, with everyone here in the Kennel, it was tough,” he said as the crowd of 2,770 exited through the turnstiles in near-record time. “They worked so hard to get here. It was a great game, though.”
Everyone lost at McCarthey, except maybe the Ben and Jerry’s concession stand. Bailey Bordelon, a 20-year-old sophomore basketball player at Spokane Falls Community College, had a banner night with the scoop and dunk.
“We definitely won in the ice cream business,” she said.
Bordelon and her partner couldn’t see the screens, and her phone’s score updated several seconds after the fan reactions. They peeked around the wall at the end just enough to see Gonzaga fall.
“Right till the end, they were like …” She finished her sentence with a frown. “It’s hard being that close.”
Gonzaga University opened the Kennel for a flood of fans that only partially materialized. Students got there first and filled those sections they covet during home games. The crowd got decidedly older as it climbed into the rafters.
McCarthey had a full complement of security, which made sure to keep the students and fans off the hardwood.
At halftime, with Gonzaga leading 35-32, Jed Barden stared up at the Gonzaga basketball banners and his fiancee, Heather Smith, hugged a huge bag of popcorn.
Barden graduated from Gonzaga back when the heroes were named Matt Santangelo, Quentin Hall and Casey Calvary.
“We are just so excited for Spokane and our students,” Barden said. “We appreciate that GU opened the Kennel for everybody. If you can’t be in Glendale, this is the next best place to be. Win or lose, it’s been a fun journey.”
Just a few rows down and to the left, three generations of Bulldogs fans cheered and danced in the aisles.
Melissa Landry came over from Portland for the game. Her daughter, Hannah Landry, attends Gonzaga as a freshman. Landry also brought her mother, herself an alum, to watch Gonzaga try to etch its name into basketball lore.
“It could not be better. I grew up here. It’s amazing how the city and the school helped each other succeed,” Landry said. “It makes me want to move back here.”
Joe Schwarz, a 20-year-old biology major from Bend, Oregon, sat alone at a round table, with his hands under his chin, staring at nothing after the painful loss.
“Actually it wasn’t that bad. I thought we did a pretty damn good job showing the nation that we could do better than they thought we would,” he said. “Now that we’ve been there once, it will be an easier preparation for it next time.”
After the crowd had filed out, Caleb Dawson, who for three hours ran around the floor leading the Kennel in cheers, sat alone and wolfed down some fries and some sort of meat product in a bun. His hunched shoulders spoke for him.
“I have no regrets,” said the 22-year-old senior economics and sociology major. “I’m still proud of my team.”
Zag Nation will only be stronger for the loss, he said.
“They will always put the work in. They will play together and coach will lead them to play as a team,” he said. “I’m sure they can do it again.”
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