Gonzaga and Kansas have met once and Matt Santangelo still gets asked about it 22 years later.
The former Zags point guard vividly describes the scene inside Phog Allen Fieldhouse and details of a competitive contest that Gonzaga led for long stretches.
“My standard line is I think we were up at half, I think I scored 19 at half,” he said, “and then they Rock Chalk Jayhawked us in the second half.”
Gonzaga did lead, 32-28, and Santangelo did pour in 19 points in the first half against the eighth-ranked Jayhawks in the 1998-99 season opener. Kenny Gregory’s dunk gave Kansas the lead for good with 10 minutes, 30 seconds left, and the Jayhawks pulled away with a 21-6 spurt for an 80-66 win.
“I bet 10:30 was when Rock Chalk Jayhawk started,” Santangelo joked of KU’s well-known chant. “I still have nightmares about that, wake up sweating. The whole place is rocking. You’ve got the students and the long-time season ticket holders, and when they get going it’s such a great environment.”
Gonzaga was just beginning its ascent onto the national landscape after falling to San Francisco in the 1998 West Coast Conference Tournament title game. The Zags felt they had done enough to earn an at-large berth, but the NCAA Tournament selection committee didn’t agree.
That provided plenty of motivation for Gonzaga’s offseason workouts and so did the first three games of the 1998-99 schedule – at Kansas, at Memphis (an 88-73 win) and at No. 15 Purdue (an 83-68 loss).
“That ’98 group had some success, and we thought we had some experience that would help us,” said Santangelo, the executive director of Hoopfest. “I do remember in the second half when it dawned on Kansas, ‘Wait a second, we don’t know where this team is from and we can’t pronounce it, but this team is pretty good.’
“We didn’t wither, but it was kind of our learning curve in those years where we were starting to get experience with big-time college basketball. They had that extra gear, and we didn’t at that time.”
The Zags showed plenty of power the rest of the season, thrashing Santa Clara 91-66 on the Broncos’ home floor to win the WCC Tournament and earn the program’s second trip to March Madness. GU reeled off three wins before falling to Connecticut in the Elite Eight. Kansas finished 23-10 and lost to Kentucky in the second round.
Santangelo has an affinity for college basketball history, so he embraced facing one of the sport’s blue bloods inside legendary Allen Fieldhouse.
“It was such an old-school building with character and charm, like when we went to Butler when I was doing (GU) radio,” said Santangelo, who finished with a game-high 24 points. “Kind of like ‘Hoosiers,’ where you go measure the rims. There’s just a couple games in my career where even when you’re dribbling up the floor, you pause and take notice of the environment you’re in and you have to appreciate it.”
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