A historic event occurred Sunday afternoon in Spokane – and some people probably thought it was just a basketball game.
Kentucky, ranked No. 4 in the nation, and the bluest-blood opponent ever to visit Spokane, absorbed an 88-72 stomping by No. 2 Gonzaga in front of 12,333 fans. Some will be tempted to call this gathering at Spokane Arena “rabid,” but there are serums to combat that sort of infection.
This? Probably not. This is going to be in the blood for quite some time.
The fact that Kentucky was in Spokane at all was a display of Gonzaga’s hard-earned position in the game above the game, the politics that unofficially govern big-time college basketball.
Give Kentucky, owners of eight national title s, credit for coming out here. Didn’t have to. Those guys can play anybody at home or in front of sold-out neutral crowds.
But credit Gonzaga even more for applying early pressure and then having the competitive steel to fight off the inevitable Kentucky surge in the second half.
Historic? Yeah, why not? Maybe not quite Expo ’74 level, but certainly as consequential as this spring’s Paul McCartney concert in this building. It took McCartney half an hour to sell out, whereas the tickets for the Kentucky visit were gone in half that time.
And the Zags/Cats drew a bigger crowd, 12,333, than any event in the building’s history.
I suspect that if McCartney were here Sunday, he’d have testified that the Zags couldn’t have played any bettah, bettah, bettah.
A list of highlights:
• Surely there have been previous college basketball battles between millionaire post players. This is the first time they’ve been legal.
Name, image, likeness darlings – Gonzaga’s Drew Timme and Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe – occupied the marquee Sunday, both considered national player of the year candidates.
Tshiebwe’s numbers were imposing – 20 points and 15 rebounds – but GU’s veteran forward Anton Watson played sensational defense on him. Watson is a thinking-fan’s favorite, his excellence sometimes subtle, a composite of a hundred small and intelligent plays. A basketball introvert in some ways.
But in the second half he added a savage dunk on a lane drive that seemed to inform Kentucky that this, indisputably, was Gonzaga’s game.
• Timme was typically spectacular with 22 points and seven rebounds while forcing Kentucky defenders to commit 10 futile fouls. A master of lane ballet, Timme once spun so many times that it seemed as if his pivot foot might drill into the hardwood.
• Of course, at least a handful of NBA scouts were in attendance, which leads to the supposition that GU guard Julian Strawther built estimable value that will ripen come draft time.
Strawther scored 20 points (3 for 4 on 3s) with 14 rebounds while playing all but nine seconds of the game.
Surely, the friendship between the coaches, GU’s Mark Few and Kentucky’s John Calipari, played a role in these teams committing to a six-game contract – two in Spokane.
That could only happen on the strength of the reputation equity Few and the Zags have built, including an extant streak of 15 straight 25-win seasons, including a couple national title games. In short, the big-name teams aren’t going anywhere they could lose unless they’re getting a big payday at home in return.
Word is that every big team in college basketball has talked with Gonzaga about a home-and-home series … except Duke. No explanation why. North Carolina has been here. And the story is told that when GU went back to Carolina, coach Roy Williams told Few that the Smith Center was too big (nearly 22,000) and that it sold out only three games all season – one of which was the GU game.
Kansas? Yes, it was in the works but forestalled by COVID issues. Perhaps in the future.
Few prefaced this Kentucky visit with comments on this game’s significance. And after the win, it all became even more relevant.
“Yeah, it’s big,” Few said. “There’s all kinds of variables that goes into having a top program. There’s winning, and we’ve won for quite a long time, and then the recruiting kind of picks up after that, and then the final piece is to kind of be accepted (to) where it’s OK to go play at your place … in your town.”
Few complimented Calipari again for risking an early loss on the road.
“I think both of us have served on these committees now and we see where college basketball is and we see just how important playing these games are this time of year.”
In other words: “It’s great for Gonzaga and it’s a huge accomplishment to get such a great program to come here and play us,” he said.
And to win. Oh, yeah, that makes it historic.
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