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Gonzaga Basketball

Gonzaga’s quarter century of March Madness: Shining moments, close calls and abrupt endings

Almost time for the greatest sporting event in the world, as Gonzaga coach Mark Few likes to call March Madness.

He might a tad biased. He also might be right.

Either way, it’s a milestone year for Few and the Zags, who have punched their ticket to 25 consecutive NCAA tournaments, 24 on Few’s watch as head coach. Notice we didn’t write 25 straight tournament appearances.

Sometime during Selection Sunday, CBS might put up a graphic showing schools with the longest active tournament streaks, and it will read Kansas (33), Michigan State (25) and Gonzaga (24).

This year would mark 25, but March Madness was canceled in 2020, two days after the Zags (31-2) thumped Saint Mary’s 84-66 in the West Coast Conference Tournament championship to earn an automatic berth.

That won’t stop our look back at great games, buzzer beaters, heart-wrenching defeats, streaks, stats, 2020’s untimely ending and 2021’s near perfection in a quarter century of Gonzaga Madness.

Tip time for Calvary

Where to start? At the start, naturally.

The 1999 Zags launched all the madness that has followed for the program by taking down seventh-seeded Minnesota and No. 2 Stanford. The 10th-seeded Zags then found themselves down one point with 15.4 seconds left after Florida post Brent Wright was whistled for traveling.

Diehard Zags fans can narrate the rest by heart. Quentin Hall splits two defenders, but his runner from 12 feet is too hard. Casey Calvary soars over Wright for a tip-in with 4.4 ticks left. The Gators race downcourt, but Eddie Shannon’s 3-point attempt is off line at the buzzer.

Pandemonium. Assistant Billy Grier hops on head coach Dan Monson’s back, Calvary buried under a dog pile of celebrating Bulldogs.

Announcer Gus Johnson: “And it’s over. Gonzaga, the slipper still fits.”

“I felt guys hitting me and pulling at my arms, but I managed to get both hands on the ball,” Calvary said. “The tip felt great. I thought it was going in.’”

Close calls

Gonzaga’s tournament streak nearly ended before it actually became a streak.

After GU’s run to the 1999 Elite Eight, Monson left for Minnesota, and Few was promoted to head coach. Gonzaga and Pepperdine split the season series, but the Waves claimed the 2000 West Coast Conference regular-season title by one game.

Calvary came up big again, scoring 28 points in GU’s 69-65 overtime win over the Waves in the WCC Tournament title game.

“And we’re back, baby, we’re back,”’ senior point guard Matt Santangelo shouted while giving Few a postgame hug. “He (Calvary) was the man.”

The 10th-seeded Zags beat Louisville and St. John’s before falling to Purdue in the Sweet 16.

There was more drama in 2001. Gonzaga had to win the WCC Tournament to reach the Big Dance and did so, 80-77 over Santa Clara behind MVP Dan Dickau’s 25 points, including six free throws in the final 96 seconds.

“This is exactly why I came here,” said Dickau, who transferred from Washington. “I knew we’d be able to do this and right now it feels awesome.”

The 12th-seeded Zags reached the Sweet 16 again before losing to Michigan State.

In 2007, the Zags were on the bubble before defeating Santa Clara 77-68 for the conference tournament title. No. 10-seeded Gonzaga dropped its NCAA Tournament opener to Indiana.

WCC Tournament MVP Marquise Carter helped the Zags take down top-seeded Saint Mary’s 75-63 in 2011. The 11th-seeded Zags beat St. John’s before falling to BYU.

In 2016, Gonzaga almost certainly would have missed the NCAA Tournament if not for an 88-84 victory over BYU in the WCC Tournament semifinals and an 85-75 win over No. 1 seed Saint Mary’s in Las Vegas. MVP Kyle Wiltjer scored 46 points in two wins.

“Hey, all is well in Zagville again, huh?” Few told fans inside Orleans Arena. “The streak is alive.”

Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs (1) celebrates with teammates after making a winning 3-pointer in overtime to defeat UCLA 93-90 on April 3, 2021, during the Final Four.  (Tribune News Service)
Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs (1) celebrates with teammates after making a winning 3-pointer in overtime to defeat UCLA 93-90 on April 3, 2021, during the Final Four. (Tribune News Service)

Clutch shots, memorable games

Calvary’s tip-in received some company in 2009 when Demetri “Meech” Goodson, inserted seconds before for defensive purposes, drove the length of the court for a short bank shot with less than 1 second remaining in GU’s 83-81 win over Western Kentucky in the second round.

“It’ll be 1 and 1A,” Few said of Calvary’s and Goodson’s winners.

Please welcome a few more 1 or 1As from Gonzaga’s two Final Four teams. In 2017, GU trailed with just less than 1 minute left when Jordan Mathews buried a 3-pointer to lift the Zags past West Virginia.

“I didn’t see it (go in),” Mathews said later. “I was fading away. I heard everybody’s reaction.”

Two days later, Gonzaga routed Xavier to reach its first Four Four. The Zags led inside the 2-minute mark before falling to North Carolina in the title game.

No list would be complete without Jalen Suggs, who covered roughly half the court with three dribbles and banked in a buzzer-beating 40-footer in a 93-90 overtime win against UCLA, sending the Zags into the 2021 championship game.

Don’t forget the plays before the shots. GU’s 6-foot-3 Josh Perkins swatted West Virginia 6-9 forward Nathan Adrian’s layup attempt, and Nigel Williams-Goss quickly fed Mathews for the 3-pointer. Prior to Suggs’ heroics, Drew Timme drew a charging foul on Johnny Juzang, ending the Bruins’ chance to win on the final possession of regulation.

Gonzaga has been on the short end of several tournament thrillers. Top-seeded Arizona edged No. 9 Gonzaga 96-95 in double overtime in 2003 in an instant classic. In the 2006 Sweet 16, UCLA rallied from 10 points down in the final 5 minutes for a 73-71 victory, leaving Zags superstar Adam Morrison in tears on the court.

Last dance of 2020 season

The Zags were 31-2, projected as a No. 1 seed and nearly a lock to play first- and second-round games at the Spokane Arena when the NCAA called off the 2020 tournament in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was the last time around for senior forward Killian Tillie and grad transfers Admon Gilder and Ryan Woolridge. All three were double-figures scorers.

“It was disappointing,” Gilder said at the 2021 Final Four in Indianapolis where he and Woolridge watched the Zags fall to Baylor 86-70 in the championship game. “Especially for a guy like Ryan whose (former) school (North Texas) hadn’t been able to play in March Madness and who came to Gonzaga to win a national championship.

“I did, too. We were looking forward to it but, you know, that’s a part of life.”

It was the first time around for then-freshmen Timme and Anton Watson.

“I know when we’re older, we’re going sit back and just think about that a lot and talk about how crazy these four years have been and everything we’ve gone through,” Watson said earlier this month.

Numbers game and Curry

In the Zags’ 23 straight tournament appearances, they’ve bowed out in the first round three times: 2002 vs. Wyoming, 2007 vs. Indiana and 2008 vs. Steph Curry, err, Davidson.

Curry lit up the Zags with 40 points, 30 in the second half, and hit 8 of 10 3-pointers as the Wildcats rallied for an 82-76 win. GU freshman Steven Gray hit seven 3s and scored 21 points.

“He made shots guarded, unguarded, every which way possible,” Zags’ guard Jeremy Pargo said of Curry. “He made an 11-foot floater (left-handed) for an and-one. What can you say?”

Gonzaga has won its first-round game in the past 13 tournaments, second only to Kansas (15).

The Zags have the most tournament wins since 2015 with 21.

Gonzaga has been a No. 1 seed five times and has a 16-5 record. The Zags are 0-5 vs. No. 1 seeds, including title-game losses to UNC and Baylor.

Gonzaga has advanced to the past seven Sweet 16s. It’s the longest active streak and third all time.

The Zags are 41-24 in the tournament. Few’s record is 38-22.

Timme doesn’t crack the top 10 in school history in NCAA Tournament games (nine), but he’s first in scoring (204). Morrison is second with 149 points. Brandon Clarke holds the single-game record with 36 points against Baylor in 2019, edging Morrison’s 35 vs. Xavier in 2006.

Imperfect ending

The 2021 Zags ripped off 31 straight wins, validating their No. 1 preseason ranking behind a record-setting offense that scored at least 82 points in 28 games. The closest margin in GU’s first four tournament games was 16 points. The Bulldogs crushed Creighton and USC by a combined 37 points to reach the Final Four.

Gonzaga edged UCLA in a national semifinal and needed one more win to complete the first unbeaten season since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. Baylor had other ideas, holding the Zags to a season-low 70 points in a 16-point victory.

“You really do forget what it’s like to lose, and every time it happens it doesn’t feel good,” senior wing Corey Kispert said. “Thankfully, I haven’t had many over my career. When you come up against a team like that, that’s firing on all cylinders, it’s really hard to compete with.”