Of all of Gonzaga’s men’s basketball showings last season that led the Zags to the Final Four, it’s the NCAA Tournament championship game that will be remembered the most.
It was the showing between a pair of teams deemed “David and Goliath,” at which the Zags nearly stole the crown from North Carolina.
But to Matt Santangelo, a former Zag and now executive director of Hoopfest, it’s not the final game that plays over and over again in his head. It was the game just before the Final Four showdown – the game that rewrote program history.
It was the Elite Eight, when Gonzaga found itself going head-to-head with Xavier, another small Jesuit school looking for its first appearance on the biggest stage in college basketball.
Santangelo was courtside at that game, working as a radio commentator last season alongside longtime play-by-play announcer Tom Hudson, and the details of the last few minutes haven’t left his memory.
The two small programs stayed close in the first half of the game, but midway through the second half, it was clear Xavier wouldn’t catch the Zags.
While the rest of the fans could foresee the inevitable Gonzaga win, a victory that had been sought for decades, the whirlwind of emotions from the long-awaited feat didn’t hit Santangelo until the last few minutes of the game.
“I remember the last, probably, 90 seconds of the game broadcast, I literally had to look at (Hudson) and say, ‘I’m sorry, man, I got nothing,’ ” he said. “I literally could not talk. I was just in tears, like I was so invested in this thing, more so than I even realized I was.”
The realization hit home that the Zags had finally shattered the ceiling so many before them couldn’t.
Santangelo was part of the first group of Zags to reach the Elite Eight in 1999, when Gonzaga missed out on a trip to the Final Four following a narrow loss to Connecticut.
“He and the rest of the guys who played on that team, this wasn’t an, ‘Oh man, I wish we would have done that,’ ” Hudson said. “There weren’t any hard feelings or any of that stuff. Instead it was more of, ‘Man, this is really cool. This is awesome. We started this and these guys have almost finished it up by getting to where we got.’ ”
It was a victory Santangelo certainly felt close to and a part of, even if he was watching from the sidelines wearing a collared shirt and a headset in his usual seat beside Hudson.
“We’re not talking about Dean Smith’s history, we’re not talking about John Wooden’s history, we’re talking about our history. This isn’t someone else’s stuff, this is us,” Santangelo said. “So that was a bit overwhelming, because it’s like, gosh, it’s almost like this was first-generation wealth. We earned it.”
This season, Santangelo has joined his family and friends in watching Gonzaga play on TV or from the stands when he can get out to the Kennel for a home game. After providing radio commentary at every Gonzaga basketball game across six of the previous seven seasons, Santangelo finally gave up the grind.
“It’s one of those things where you’re trying to achieve a little sense of balance in a really crazy time of life,” Santangelo said. “I wanted just to be home. That’s really what it came down to.”
Some extra time has also given Santangelo more opportunities to focus on the ongoing expansion of Hoopfest.
The Hoopfest crew, formally known as Spokane Hoops Association, recently relocated to a new office inside the Paulsen Center on Riverside in downtown Spokane.
Along with the new space, which features high ceilings and a hoop to practice the occasional jump shot, the association has begun a new design to the entire association that will better embody all of the organization’s functions and programs throughout the year.
Under the umbrella name Spokane Hoops Association will be suborganizations, Spokane Hoopfest being most prominent. The association will also organize Spokane Hoops on the Court, which will continue to lead and work alongside 5-on-5 youth programs such as Spokane AAU.
Another branch of the organization will feature Spokane Hoops in the Community, which handles annual donations to the Special Olympics and other community projects.
There will also be Spokane Hoops on the Road, which handles Spokane Hoops events in cities outside Spokane. This includes the 3-on-3 tournament in Las Vegas in the fall that is backed by the partnership of Spokane Hoopfest and MGM Resorts International.
The association is also looking to enhance the AAU experience. A developmental league was added last year for younger children that emphasizes skill development. Santangelo said Spokane Hoops and Spokane AAU will soon integrate a less-competitive league for those not quite ready to compete at the elite level.
Santangelo said he’s working to pull Hoopfest and Spokane Hoops further into the world of 3-on-3 basketball. He hopes that Hoopfest will have the opportunity to host qualifiers when the 3-on-3 game becomes an Olympic sport for the 2020 Tokyo Games, and to organize Olympic division during Hoopfest weekend that would feature a FIBA-style 3-on-3 tournament.
“Right now, 3-on-3 is hot. It’s a good … time to be in 3-on-3 basketball, so we’re hoping that that continues to carry over and … that Hoopfest gets a seat at the table for a lot of those conversations,” Santangelo said.
Santangelo will also represent Hoopfest at the Final Four this season. He was invited to join a panel of mostly media members that will decide the top four seniors from each Division I conference who will play in a 3-on-3 tournament during the championship weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
With so much expansion, it’s possible Hoopfest could attract more iconic basketball figures such as Golden State star Kevin Durant, who made an appearance during Hoopfest weekend earlier this year as part of an arrangement made with Nike.
It was the first time Hoopfest had featured a surprise visit from a basketball star that had kids running to center court from in all directions.
“It creates that moment. Every Hoopfest has its own identity for whatever reason,” Santangelo said. “That’s going to be the one that one’s remembered for, is the year KD showed up.”
But whether or not Hoopfest will continue to draw big names, Santangelo said it will keep expanding and will continue to unleash a memorable weekend every year.
“Really, Hoopfest, it doesn’t grow to 6,000 teams because you have 6,000 Kevin Durants. It grows to 6,000 teams that enjoy playing basketball,” he said. “That will always be the essence of what this event is about, is that if you want to play, we’ve got a spot for you.”
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