BOISE – Gonzaga’s and UNC Greensboro’s campuses are roughly 2,500 miles apart, but their connections extend abroad.
All the way to Spain, to be precise. UNCG standout guard Francis Alonso is a native of Malaga, which was also the home base of a promising young forward named Domantas Sabonis.
They became friends and teammates on Spanish youth teams.
“We played together for seven or eight years,” said Alonso, who will lead the 13th-seeded Spartans against No. 4 Gonzaga on Thursday in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
“He’s a great guy, really works hard.”
Sabonis became another in a long line of Gonzaga’s international stars recruited by assistant coach Tommy Lloyd. The 6-foot-10 forward’s teams played in a Sweet 16 and an Elite Eight in two seasons before he declared for the NBA Draft. The lottery pick played for Oklahoma City last year and is currently having a breakout season with the Indiana Pacers.
Shortly after the GU-UNCG pairing flashed on the TV screen Sunday, a text message showed up on Alonso’s phone.
“Domas said, ‘Sorry, we’re going dancing, too,’ ” Alonso said. “He told me good luck. There was some trash-talking in that conversation. He told me, ‘Imagine if I’d stayed and was still at Gonzaga.’ ”
Sabonis left behind a blueprint that Alonso and others have followed by keeping open the option of playing college ball in the U.S.
“He was the first one that left us,” Alonso said, “and one year later I was coming to play in the U.S. I always had an idea to come here and study. He helped me out in some ways. I was the one asking him questions about how he was feeling about the U.S. experience. I’m really proud of what he’s doing in the NBA.”
Alonso’s experience has been memorable, too. The 6-foot-3 junior averages a team-high 15.6 points. He’s made a single-season record 110 3-pointers and 297 in his career, second in program history. His 1,494 career points is eighth on the school’s all-time list.
“He gets a lot of credit for how he shoots the ball because his numbers jump off the page, but he’s so much more than a catch-and-shoot guy,” Spartans coach Wes Miller said. “He grew up playing FIBA competition with Spanish national teams. He can do a lot with the ball in his hands.
“He’s one of the special guards in college basketball.”
UNCG probably needs Alonso at his best to spring an upset of the eighth-ranked Zags. He’s well versed in Gonzaga’s tradition, thanks to Sabonis.
“They’re a great program, great history, always building great players,” he said. “We know it’s going to be a challenge. Everybody is going to be tough. We showed we can beat really good teams. At this point it’s about us, and taking care of us.”
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