Gonzaga was still establishing residency on the national scene when it lined up against No. 2 North Carolina on Nov. 22, 2006, inside fabled Madison Square Garden.
The Bulldogs were 4-0, but college basketball analysts wondered if the Zags would be able to replace Adam Morrison, the co-national player of the year in 2005-06.
The Tar Heels were 3-0, but featured a young roster stocked with six future NBA players: Tyler Hansbrough, Brandan Wright, Wayne Ellington, Ty Lawson, Danny Green and Alex Stepheson. Reyshawn Terry was a second-round NBA Draft pick and joined several teammates that had long careers internationally.
GU’s 82-74 upset over the Tar Heels served as another key building block in the program’s rise nationally. By ranking, it was the Zags’ biggest win until they knocked off No. 1 Duke last season at the Maui Invitational.
“You’re in one of the meccas for basketball and playing against a coach like (UNC’s) Roy Williams,” said Derek Raivio, who hit five 3-pointers and scored a team-high 21 points. “It was a great opportunity playing with your brothers, really just proving yourself and making a name for Gonzaga. What better platform than that?”
The 2006 victory remains Gonzaga’s lone victory in four meetings against North Carolina, one of college basketball’s storied programs. The Tar Heels beat the Zags in the 2009 Sweet 16, the 2017 national championship game and last season in Chapel Hill.
The teams collide Wednesday at the McCarthey Athletic Center, but we walked down memory lane with four members of the 2006-07 squad – Raivio, Josh Heytvelt, David Pendergraft and Jeremy Pargo – reflecting on that milestone victory.
Not an ideal start
North Carolina bolted in front 10-0, unleashing its lethal transition game. The Zags finally got on the board on Heytvelt’s dunk – the first indication that Heytvelt was going to have a huge night with 19 points and eight rebounds.
Pargo: “We started out really slow at the beginning. Matt Bouldin (who finished with 14 points and six assists) came in and gave us a spark early.”
Raivio: “Something that comes to mind was how fast they got the ball up court. Make or miss, their transition offense was high octane. That’s one thing you see with Roy Williams’ teams. They just beat us down the floor.”
Gaining momentum, and the lead
Gonzaga found its footing and quickly cut into UNC’s lead. The Zags took the lead, 27-26, on another Heytvelt dunk. GU led 40-37 at the break.
Pendergraft: “We had a really good strategy on Tyler that got them out of their rhythm. It was just being physical and Josh coming over with help-side. Josh had some monster blocks. Tyler used his physicality to score and we matched that. I wasn’t good at a lot of things, but I could bring physicality.”
Heytvelt: “We played really intelligent basketball and all of our shots seemed to be going in. We just got our mojo going.”
Zags take command
Gonzaga dominated at both ends of the floor in the second half, stretching its lead to 65-49 near the 8-minute mark. After opening the game 1 for 10, GU made 22 of its next 33 shots.
The Zags fed off the crowd, which began rooting for the underdog as Gonzaga’s lead grew.
Raivio: “When you feel that as the underdog, it gives you more confidence. You could definitely feel the energy in the crowd turn in our favor, like, ‘These guys could make this happen.’ It was really one of more enjoyable games I’ve played in.”
Heytvelt: “We were just playing Gonzaga basketball and it ended up good for us.”
Pargo: “I remember us being up by 18 or so at one point. Talking to one of my friends after the game, he said, ‘I knew if you all could get it to 20, they’d be done.’ We couldn’t get over that hump. We couldn’t get it to that 20 mark, and they made the game close again.”
Tar Heels close the gap
North Carolina put together a fierce comeback, using pressure defense to slice Gonzaga’s lead to 70-68 with 4:15 left.
Pendergraft: “Brandan Wright was a top 10 pick that year and he started going to work, hitting shots, free throws, blocking shots. They were so freaking talented. They’re going to compete and that’s what they started doing.”
Raivio: “You take your shot and the other team comes back. In those games (against top opponents), you’re like, ‘Hold on, we’re just as good as these guys, let’s get after it and show what we got.’ But they’re always going to make a run.”
Zags clutch down the stretch
The Zags stopped UNC’s rally when Pargo, who finished with 16 points, drove inside for a three-point play and he fed Pendergraft for a layup. Raivio added a big pull-up jumper and two free throws.
Pargo: “We ended up winning by maybe seven or eight, something like that. The biggest thing I remember is winning.”
Pendergraft: “Pargo was an NBA talent, he was competitive and he wanted to win. It’s who is aggressive and who can make plays. We trusted the ball in his hands and he produced.”
Heytvelt: “I wish I did (remember Pargo’s three-point play), but I played a lot of games after that (two more seasons at GU and seven seasons professionally). That’s just a clutch player being clutch. Pargo always came through in tough situations for us. The entire game, we just did what we had to do at all the crucial moments.”
The Zags celebrated one of the biggest wins in program history, but not for long. They lost to Butler for the NIT Season Tip-Off championship two days later.
Raivio: “We were just super happy. With that team, we were coming off Adam leaving (for the NBA), we were just finding our identity and it was just a whole new experience with that group of guys. Coach (Mark) Few was a little more businesslike, he’s gotten more relaxed as the years have gone on. If that happened now, we would have gotten a cartwheel from him.”
Pendergraft: “You dream about beating North Carolina, No. 2, in Madison Square Garden. Unless you’re talking about playing in the national championship, there’s not too many things that beat that feeling.”
Hooptown Watch Party
Hooptown USA and Northwest Passages present The Watch Party featuring Gonzaga University and the University of North Carolina. Join us under the lights at the new Pavilion at Riverfront Park as these two powerhouses battle it out!