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Gonzaga Basketball

‘Huge victory for us’: Matt Santangelo’s 1998 game-winner helped Gonzaga escape momentum killer against lowly Texas-Pan American

Gonzaga’s Matt Santangelo gets a steal during the 1998-99 season.  (Spokesman-Review Photo Archives)
By Dave Boling The Spokesman-Review The Spokesman-Review

Editor’s note: This is the second of a six-part look back at Gonzaga’s wild run to the Elite Eight during the 1998-99 season.

Retrospective analyses of historic athletic seasons mostly focus on the big wins and the headline upsets.

But successful seasons being the progressive accumulation of momentum and win-fueled confidence, sometimes it is the heart-stopping escapes against lesser opponents that are every bit as important – but so often forgotten over time.

Some years after Gonzaga’s magical 1999 run to the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight, Zag frontcourt powerhouse Casey Calvary pointed out a harrowing win on Dec. 28, 1998, in a small gym in Edinburg, Texas.

“Sometimes it’s the weirdest games you appreciate,” Calvary said when interviewed for the 2004 book, “Tales from the Gonzaga Sidelines.” “We were playing Texas-Pan American … they were ranked something like 305 out of 303 (teams) in Division I. We go there and they played in one of those gyms that seat about 200 people and they don’t even bother to turn on all the lights. It was such a strange environment.”

The Zags, in the early stages of upgrading their schedules, had lost to No. 8 Kansas and No. 15 Purdue, and lost again against Detroit. They scored a nice win over Washington in the Spokane Arena, and were 8-3 heading out on a two-game Texas swing to wrap up the 1998 portion of the season.

The Broncs were 2-10 on way to a 5-22 season.

The Zags led most of the way, but piling up 24 turnovers opened the door for guard Brian Merriweather, who nailed a pair of 3s to give the Broncs a 73-71 lead with eight seconds left in the game and Lalo Rios on the free-throw line for a pair.

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After Rios missed both free throws, Calvary pulled in the board. “I tripped over one of their guys, the ball went through the legs of one of their players and Matt (Santangelo) went down and pulled up for a 3 at the buzzer to win the game.”

The Zags went on to lose to a ranked TCU team (90-87) two nights later to stand 9-4 before going on to win the West Coast Conference regular season and the conference tournament.

With the automatic berth, the Zags would have made the NCAA’s, even with a loss that strange night in Edinburg, Texas.

But maybe they would have ended up with a lower seeding that might have kept them from playing the first two rounds in the West Region in Seattle, where the fans were highly partisan and extremely vocal.

“That would have killed us,” Calvary said of the possible loss. “But we pulled it out. There were no cameras there, no highlights, but it was a huge victory for us.”