SEATTLE – If you’re worried that the forces of conference realignment will endanger the Gonzaga-Washington rivalry, don’t bother, this thing hasn’t been a rivalry for years.
The Zags had won 14 of the last 15 of these cross-state contretemps. But it felt pretty heated at times in the second half Saturday night in Alaska Airlines Arena as the up-trending Huskies scrapped and battled and boarded and contended until they pulled out a 78-73 upset that caused students and fans to file onto the court in celebration.
The status was definitely not quo in the second half.
It was contrary to recent fortunes: The Zags came in No. 7 in the country, likely heading toward their 25th consecutive NCAA appearance. UW hasn’t finished a season in the Top 25 since 2011.
UW earned this one, though, as they smothered the Zag offense in the last part of the second half.
Apparently, these two will meet a couple more times even after Washington moves to the Big 10 and GU moves … who knows where? This thing has never been conference-dependent anyway.
Rivalries might be a thing of the past in most precincts other than Tobacco Road, anyway, these days.
Both teams had as many international guys as in-state players on their rosters. And the transfer portal has fueled rampant roster shuffling, with players coming and going so fast they can’t keep track of what teams they’re supposed to resent.
But on Saturday night, this game was obviously important, especially for the resurgent Huskies, whose fans roared at the frantic and sometimes harried play down the stretch.
The Zags were forced out of their game in the second half, as it seems very much a team still feeling growing pains as players strain to find and fill their roles.
How did it come to this, with Gonzaga owning the series so convincingly?
It goes back to a decision made in 2002, a decision that gave Gonzaga the singular most consistent difference between these teams through the succeeding years.
Athletic director Barbara Hedges fired coach Bob Bender, a friend of GU coach Mark Few. Few had taken Gonzaga to a pair of Sweet 16s in his first three seasons and was a much-coveted candidate for any opening in the country.
He knew he liked living in Spokane, and felt comfortable with the GU administration. Still, he listened. He loved the Northwest lifestyle, and Spokane was reasonably close to his family in Oregon.
“It intrigued me, sure,” Few said in a 2004 interview. “It’s basically got the same appeal in terms of proximity to family. There’s more players there to draw from.”
And the money? Oh, yeah, the salary would be significantly larger. All necessary resources were in place.
One day, Few and assistant coach Leon Rice were walking across the campus, talking about the possible move. They bumped into two Zag players, Blake Stepp and Cory Violette.
“We realized we had two more years with them and, to be quite honest, I just couldn’t leave kids like that,” Few said of that decisive moment. “Those were my guys, guys who signed with me as the head coach. I couldn’t leave them. I know that’s not something that always happens in this profession, and it’s something that is very important that is missing in the profession. But I just didn’t know how I could bail on them.”
GU athletic director then, Mike Roth, said that Few had been offered jobs every year he’d been head coach, and that’s only continued through the years.
“I think the Washington job might have been a tough decision for him,” Roth said. “But Mark is not chasing the dollar.”
He’s 60 and still at GU, and the program remains elite despite Saturday’s result.
Hedges found a good fall-back candidate, hiring Lorenzo Romar.
UW had early success under Romar, with three Sweet 16 appearances, but after a 9-22 season in 2016-17, Romar was replaced by Mike Hopkins, now in his seventh season with mixed results.
What would have happened if Few had left GU for the sleeping giant that UW appeared?
UW might have flourished, GU could have withered.
Saturday night, there was not much to choose between these two teams, and not many can remember the decision more than 20 years ago that set these two programs on different paths.