SAN JOSE, Calif. – When he saw the subs being sent to the scorer’s table – the basketball valedictory – the emotions finally burst inside of Nigel Williams-Goss. He sprinted to a corner where the sideline met the half-court line, squatted and rested his head in his hands.
When he came up, there were tears in his eyes.
The new tears of Gonzaga basketball.
The old ones – the ones Adam Morrison shed just up the road in Oakland a decade back – can be retired now. They were the uncorked despair of a competitor who simply wanted to win so much and saw it snatched away, and for the snark artists who work the back alleys of sports it was the easiest thing in the world to use the image to dismiss and demean.
But that ended Saturday, when the Bulldogs found the Final Four solution.
Carried by more smothering defense, the bounding inspiration of regional MVP Johnathan Williams and the relentless grind of Williams-Goss himself, the Bulldogs took the next, inevitable step in their evolution – dispatching overmatched Xavier 83-59 to become the NCAA’s West Regional champions.
That’s what is engraved on the trophy.
What they won was the right to breathe.
Oh, yeah. Plus the program’s first trip to the Final Four – 22 years after it finally broke through to the tournament itself, 112 years after the first jump ball in the old gym in what’s now College Hall.
The celebration was both real and ethereal, the hugs threatening to leave bruises on top of the ones the Zags absorbed in the win over West Virginia on Thursday. Przemek Karnowski – college basketball’s winningest player – cradled the trophy as if it was his first born, which in a sense it was. After handing it off, he stepped forward to lift coach Mark Few off the ladder when the last strands of the net had been snipped.
They reveled in the accomplishment, even more than they did rejecting false narratives.
“It’s not validation,” insisted senior Jordan Mathews. “Look at all the past great teams with Matt Bouldin, Adam Morrison, Matt Santangelo and (Jeremy) Pargo – just great guys, great players on fantastic teams. The Final Four doesn’t validate or discredit a season. It’s not an end-all-be-all. Gonzaga has been a great program and we’re just happy to keep carrying the torch.”
“Amen, brother,” seconded Williams.
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The names of old Zags were invoked often Saturday evening. David Pendergraft was in the very-Gonzaga crowd of 17,011 at the SAP Center. So, too, were John Stockton and Ronny Turiaf. Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis from the 2016 team watched together on TV.
It’s not a mere thread that ties them all together.
“I’m a mess,” said Santangelo, whose 1999 Gonzaga team first got to the Final Four threshold without crossing and who worked this game on radio. “I did the last 10 minutes of the game in tears. There are so many people in the history of the program who are celebrating this – and coach Few has kept us all together to feel like we’re a part of it.”
Forgotten locally and simply ignored by the Zagtagonists out there, the context of those beyond-humble roots and how it makes the program’s story – and this latest achievement – even more incredible is better understood by basketball people. The Final Four breakthroughs of under-the-radar programs like VCU and George Mason were great stories, but temporary thrills.
Gonzaga wrote a better story over the course of two decades, and then topped it – and still have a chapter they’d like to write.
“My first year on the staff, we won four Division I games,” said Few, whose Gonzaga history goes back 28 years. “I mean, this wasn’t even possible. And each year we got better and better, and then we got really, really good.
“Our culture is just so strong. And this was a culture win, and a culture statement.”
It was delivered with what was easily the Zags’ best performance of the tournament. Even with 25 minutes still to play, Williams draining a 3 and flushing a dunk in the space of a minute spelled it out for the Musketeers – and you could see it all over of the face of their superfan, actor Bill Murray, camped right behind the press table.
By the way, this makes the Bulldogs 2-0 against celebrity mascots. So they’ve got that going for them. Which is nice.
But maybe the best thing was that the day was about joy and not just relief. Silas Melson noted it was the happiest he’d ever seen his coach.
“Me, too,” said Few’s wife, Marcy.
More than on their wedding day?
“He was bewildered that day,” she said.
Maybe this one, too.
“It just makes your heart warm to like 350 degrees Celsius or something,” he said. “Maybe it’s Fahrenheit. It’s been a while since I was in class.”
And it wasn’t a dry heat. Not with all those new tears.
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