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Gonzaga Basketball

For Zag fans, the last-second Sweet 16 win over UCLA mirrored the entire season

Gonzaga guard Hunter Sallis high fives fans as he heads to the locker room after defeating the TCU Horned Frogs on Sunday at Ball Arena in Denver, Colo. Gonzaga won the game 84-81.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Jim Allen For The Spokesman-Review

LAS VEGAS – Even by Vegas standards, Gonzaga fans were a late-rising bunch Friday morning.

Who could blame them?

Fueled by the adrenaline rush of the Zags’ thrilling Sweet 16 win over UCLA, many had partied into the wee hours.

On Friday, they awoke happy, with feelings of “did that really happen?”

Down by 13 at the half, the Zags went up by 10 late in the game. Blowing that lead, they were rescued by a late 3-pointer from Las Vegas’ own Julian Strawther to win 79-76 and reach the Elite Eight.

Never a doubt? No, Gonzaga fans aren’t that arrogant.

At halftime, Ken Jackson of Cashmere, Washington, said he “wasn’t writing them off by any means.”

“I knew they would come back, but I wasn’t sure they could actually come back and win,” said Jackson, who was joined by his wife, Karen, and some friends at an only-in-Vegas, Italian-themed food court.

“We all know they’re a second-half team,” Karen said.

His friend, Steve Lowry of Chelan, Washington, was even less optimistic at halftime.

Sure enough, the Zags rallied.

“The big surprise for me was getting the 10-point lead and then giving it up,” Jackson said.

“I was wondering how exciting it was going to be on Saturday to watch two teams (UCLA and Connecticut) that we don’t care about,” Lowry said.

Instead, it will be the Zags – underdogs again – facing the UConn Huskies at T-Mobile Arena for a spot in the Final Four.

In some ways, the game reflected the season: the slow start, closer-than-expected wins over conference rivals and, finally, redemption.

Outside, Sarah Michaelson of Spokane was shopping and enjoying the sun with her children and other relatives.

More than most, Michaelson has lived through the ups of this season. Her husband, Brian, is a former player and current assistant under coach Mark Few.

“Honestly, it was a rough start and a challenge for Zag fans,” said Sarah Michaelson, who played soccer at GU. “We’re spoiled, and we’re used to winning by 20 points or more consistently.

“But we’re peaking at the right time, it just took this team a little longer to figure it out.” That also was the case Thursday night. In the first half, Gonzaga appeared listless on defense, giving up 46 points and forcing only one turnover.

Michaelson’s 11-year-old daughter, Parker, was less circumspect.

“I was more on the negative side (at halftime),” Parker said. “But I just knew we were going to pull through and win, that either something big has to happen or we’re going to win in overtime.”

She was half-right. Gonzaga dominated the second half and took a 10-point lead with 2½ minutes left. They still led by nine a minute later, but gave up big plays and missed three of their next four free throws.

By that point, longtime fans were fighting off memories of the Zags’ tournament collapse in 2006 against the same UCLA program.

“I was thinking, ‘Why can’t we make some free throws?’ ” Ryan Hoiland of Cashmere said.

The Zags and their fans were rescued by Strawther, whose 3-pointer with 7 seconds left was the biggest play of the game – and the season.

By midday, it was time to look ahead to the next challenge. It won’t be easy: In the first game of Thursday’s doubleheader, UConn rolled to a 23-point win over Arkansas.

In this season of ups and downs, few fans could be accused of overconfidence.

“If they (UConn) shoot like they did last night … it’s going to be tough,” Hoiland said.