One would think nothing could upstage a matchup of the two top-ranked college basketball teams. But then one would have underestimated the power of self-promotion at ESPN, the network broadcasting Gonzaga’s Final Four rematch with UCLA on Tuesday night.
From before the opening tip – the first one this season Chet Holmgren actually lost, about the only thing the Zags didn’t win all night – there was one other subject the Worldwide Leader focused upon: Dick Vitale’s return.
The veteran analyst, who has been dealing with cancer since the summer, joined Dave O’Brien, the perfect pairing of a calm play-by-play voice and an energetic commentator.
Oh, by the way, the Zags dominated the matchup of No. 1 vs. No. 2, 83-63 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Actually, though, it wasn’t really that tight.
What they saw …
• If there is anyone in college basketball who would appreciate the expression of love, it would be Vitale, in his 43rd year as an analyst. He uses that word often in a variety of ways.
Vitale’s attitude of gratitude is genuine, considering what he’s experienced the past year. The 82-year-old has not just dealt with one but two bouts with cancer, as documented in Theo Lawson’s excellent story in Tuesday’s Spokesman-Review. He was just recently allowed to return to the road and broadcast games live. How long has it been since he’s been in a gym? March 10, 2020, as he called Gonzaga’s rout of Saint Mary’s in Las Vegas. Since then, there has been a worldwide pandemic and his own world of hurt, cancer.
Yes, ESPN made a big deal out of the return, but rightfully so. No one, not Bill Walton nor Jay Bilas, better serves as the soundtrack of college hoops. His relentless energy lights up every broadcast and makes it a much-watch event. Yes, he goes over the top too often, but it’s also true few know the game better. Despite a preference for positivity, Vitale is not afraid to call out hypocrisy or untoward play – including two Flagrant 1 fouls called on the Bruins.
He’s also well known for his love of raising money for the fight against pediatric cancer. Over the years, Vitale’s charitable work has brought in more than $44 million.
Is it any surprise Vitale began crying as the game broadcast began at 7:10 , as he thanked everyone who supported him over the past years?
Or that he was able to immediately get it together and delve into the 1 vs. 2 matchup.
What we saw …
• The game? It wasn’t close after the first few minutes.
“Oh my gosh, what an unbelievable start,” Vitale exclaimed as Gonzaga (6-0) jumped out to a 29-8 start. “And they’ve done it with defense,” O’Brien added, noting the Bruins (5-1) were 4 of 22 from the floor at the second media timeout.
It didn’t get much better, though UCLA started to shoot better and the Zags weren’t about to continue to convert more than 70% of their looks.
For some reason, the game slowed down after halftime. Maybe because the officiating trio of Roger Ayers, John Higgins and Eric Curry, became a part of the story.
There were nine fouls called in the first 9 minutes, 36 seconds of the second half. All nine were whistled against Gonzaga, although the Bruins showed greater physical play. That physical play showed before halftime, when Jaylen Clark was called for throwing an elbow that made contact with Drew Timme’s head. It continued after, as Tyger Campbell earned another flagrant foul by pulling Julian Strawther to the floor on a layup attempt.
The hard fouls, and a couple of nearly as bad that were not called, made it clear UCLA isn’t happy with losing the last two games to Gonzaga.
• Vitale’s return corresponded with Holmgren’s true introduction to the national audience. One play will be what everyone will remember.
It came with 17:47 to play. The 7-foot freshman helped off 6-10 center Myles Johnson to stop a Johnny Juzang drive. Juzang dished to Johnson, who looked to have a simple layup. Except Holmgren easily blocked and grabbed it out of the air.
But that wasn’t all. He took the ball upcourt, crossed halfcourt, got Johnson on his hip, dribbled behind his back and, with Timme clearing the lane, rose up and threw down a two-hand slam.
“C’mon America,” Vitale said, his voice reaching levels we remember from seasons past. “America, get to know the name Chet Holmgren. Are you serious?”
Vitale, as is his way, continued on, raving about the play, raving about Holmgren and, finally, using one of his patented calls.
“He’s awesome, baby, with a capital ‘A.’ ”
So were the Zags in this one.
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