‘We rolled right through that thing’: Gonzaga launched onto the national scene by winning 1997’s Top of the World Classic
Dan Monson could be excused for being nervous. It was his first road trip as head coach of the Gonzaga Bulldogs men’s basketball team, having taken over from the iconic Dan Fitzgerald.
Quite a trip, too, to Fairbanks, Alaska, in late November for the 1997 Top of the World Classic.
Coaches were asked to make a few comments at the pretournament luncheon, which included future National Coaches of the Year Rick Barnes (Clemson) and Bill Self (Tulsa).
Monson, being the unknown rookie of the bunch, opened his comments with some levity, predicting: “We’re just gonna roll through this thing.”
Everybody yukked it up. Good one, kid.
“It turned out to be hilarious,” said GU assistant Bill Grier, “because that’s exactly what we did, we rolled right through that thing.”
(Quotes in this story were retrieved from the book “Tales From the Gonzaga Hardwood” – Sports Publishing, 2004).
By fall 1997, the Zags had gradually elevated their competitive profile with NIT appearances in 1994 and ‘96, and a lone NCAA berth in 1995. But they had to go to Fairbanks for the first wins that grabbed national attention.
Monson may have been intentionally sand-bagging, but it’s certain nobody could have picked the Zags to come away with the championship trophy.
The Zags wasted no time sending an indisputable message.
In the opener against Tulsa, GU held the stunned Golden Hurricanes to 10 points in the first 20 minutes, leading 34-10 at halftime on the way to a shockingly easy 78-40 win over a team that would finish with 19 wins.
Holding a team to 40 would seem to be the headline, but the Zags’ perimeter shooting hinted of bigger things, as sophomore Richie Frahm led GU with 24 points, making five of 8 3-pointers.
Mississippi State had been a Final Four team in 1996, and were better prepared for the suddenly emergent Zags the next night, but still fell 70-68, sending GU to the title game against Clemson, the No.5 ranked team in the nation.
It was 4 degrees outside the gym at tip-off, but the Zags were riding a super-charged hot streak. Making 14 of 19 attempts from beyond the arc, and 68 percent of their field goals overall, the Zags topped the heavily favored Tigers 84-71.
Guard Matt Santangelo led with 19 points (5-for-7 3s) and was named the tournament’s MVP. The next morning, Gonzaga received one vote in the Top-25 poll.
It was GU’s first win over a Top 10-ranked team. Monson’s quote afterward, which was carried nationally by Associated Press, was the perfect assessment of the win’s meaning to the future of GU basketball: “A lot of people will see that score and not know where Gonzaga is, and tomorrow they will.”
‘Huge victory for us’: Matt Santangelo’s 1998 game-winner helped Gonzaga escape momentum killer against lowly Texas-Pan American
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.
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.”
Zags do their homework: Gonzaga needed a little magic to pull off first-round win over scandal-embroiled Minnesota
Some of the Zags at the time objected a bit to the “Cinderella” label that was applied to them during their unlikely run through the NCAA Tournament in 1999.
They thought it downplayed their abilities, as if their hard-fought string of upset wins carried the fictional qualities of a Disney production.
But even Disney would have had trouble plausibly scripting the actual setup of the Zags tournament opener against Big 10 powerhouse Minnesota.
As Gonzaga grew into a more competitive force in college basketball through the 1990s, the Zags encountered a series of slights and disrespect in post-season consideration. Nobody could beef about the No. 10 seeding in the West Region in March, 1999, though.
The Zags, 25-6, champions of the West Coast Conference season and tournament, were shipped cross-state to Seattle’s Key Arena.
The Sonics’ home became the auxiliary, West Side Kennel for the raucous GU fans, along with the thousands of unattached hoop fans in the arena who were soon screaming senselessly for the underdog Zags.
Minnesota, the No. 7 seed, was having a rough week. Four players had been suspended on Wednesday when a local paper published stories alleging a widespread academic scandal.
It required drastic lineup shuffling, and forced coach Clem Haskins to answer a series of difficult questions regarding his awareness of and participation in the shenanigans.
That the Zags roster was filled with a number of scholars turned the game into a bit of a morality play. Asked if the Zags had others write their essays, guard Richie Frahm laughed and reported that, NCAA appearance or no, “a lot of us brought our homework with us this week.”
The Zags fans were suitably sympathetic to the Golden Gophers’ travails, loudly chanting “Do your homework … clap, clap, clap … Do your homework!” and waving homemade signage that included “Phlunk the Goferz.”
But the most foreshadowing scene, one that would have required expensive CGI or animation, even for Disney, came the day before the game’s tip-off.
After practice, as they do every day, players and coaches compete with half-court shots.
Before the Minnesota game, Zags coach Dan Monson took the last shot. Half-court, nothing but net.
The players went berserk and tossed him another ball. Monson pivoted and fired another half-court swish on the other basket.
“I’ll tell you what, coach has been on fire all season,” guard Matt Santangelo said. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that he steps up for the big games.”
As an unexpected defensive approach, the Zags staff sicced the hyper-kinetic Bahamian point guard Quentin Hall on Gopher forward Quincy Lewis, the Big 10’s leading scorer and eventually an NBA first-round draft pick.
Hall was aspirationally listed at 5-foot-8. Lewis was 6-7. The Zags went to a box-and-one defense, with Hall assigned to make Lewis’ life miserable across every inch of the court.
Zags assistant coach Mark Few said that Hall reminded him of the tiny cartoon chickenhawk that constantly bedeviled the much larger Foghorn Leghorn. (“Get away from me, boy, I say, get away from me.”)
In the face of Hall’s ceaseless harassment, Lewis was conspicuously bumfuzzled, missing 16 of 19 shots and all five of his 3-point attempts. In allegorical news at halftime, Zags reserve guard Ryan Floyd, from Class B Sprague-Harrington, outscored the All American Lewis.
Minnesota gobbled up the bulk of the Zags’ 21-point lead in the second half, closing it to 65-63 with 1:22 left, when Frahm netted a deep 3 to trigger a Zags end-game sequence that left the final at 75-63. Frahm finished with 26.
The Zags were off to do their homework and prepare for a game against Stanford.
Minnesota flew home to heated investigation that led to the firing of Haskins, who was replaced by the hottest shooting head coach in the country, Monson, which opened the GU job for Mark Few.
‘My role is to go in and beat the hell out of somebody’: The day that willowy Mark Spink and Gonzaga took down Mad Dog and Stanford
In the excitement after beating Minnesota for Gonzaga’s first NCAA Tournament victory in March 1999, coach Dan Monson told reporters that the win “validifies” the Zags program.
It was an effective portmanteau of an event that both validated the school’s requirements that players actually be student-athletes, and verified the fact that such teams could still win big games.
But a disclaimer was high in every news story of the Zags’ West Region upset of the Golden Gophers – that Minnesota was competing without four recently suspended players who were caught up in an academic scandal. It seemed to diminish the value of the upset, as if the win needed an asterisk.
So, it was the subsequent 82-74 upset of No. 2-seeded Stanford in a second-round game at Seattle’s Key Arena that truly legitimized the Zags’ abilities and amplified their potential – all in 40 minutes of unexpected legitification.
The Cardinal represented a bastion of academia, and held widespread basketball acclaim after their Final Four appearance the previous tournament. They were ranked No. 7 nationally.
So, no one could argue that this upset was anything less than the real deal.
The most stunning fact was that GU topped the Cardinal by beating them at their own game, being physical and hard-nosed, not only fighting to a 47-33 rebound advantage over the taller Stanford team, but doing so, largely, with a corps of substitutes that battled with a notable ferocity.
Reserves Mike Nilson and Axel Dench were juniors, and had the body types to go Greco-Roman with the hefty Stanford frontcourt, but the real surprise was the skinny sophomore who came off the bench – Mark Spink.
A willowy 6-foot-8, 190 pounds, Spink was 94 feet of elbows and attitude. And with starters Casey Calvary and Jeremy Eaton in foul trouble much of the game, Spink spent 14 minutes plastered to Stanford All-American Mark Madsen (6-9, 240 pounds). Madsen still finished with 15 points and 14 rebounds, but it didn’t come easily for him, and statistics weren’t tallied of his bruises and welts.
Here’s how Spink defined his game afterward: “My role is to go in and beat the hell out of somebody and try to get some rebounds and a bucket here and there.”
Spink finished with three points, five rebounds and four personal fouls, although some of the fouls probably deserved to count more than one each. His capacity to punch well above his weight was noticed by everybody.
“We watched Spink down there, at about a buck-ninety, and I think it was inspiring to all our kids,” Monson said afterward.
The best compliments came from the Stanford big guys who were left to marvel at the effort of Spink and his like-minded teammates.
“They played harder than us,” said 7-1, 245 pound center Tim Young. “They played really, really hard, and they were really, really physical. I don’t think we were ready for that.”
“Give them a lot of credit for the way they played and the heart they had inside,” Madsen added. “The players we played against tonight on the Gonzaga team had a lot of heart. Tremendous heart.”
A few years after Spink’s departure, coach Mark Few called him “fearless.” And in a larger sense, Few said he saw Spink as representative of “the heart and soul of what we were all about.”
For his hustle and humor, Spink was considered one of the all-time great Zags teammates. An accountant living in Lake Oswego, Oregon, he’s expected to attend this weekend’s reunion of the 1999 Zags.
It wouldn’t be a reunification without him.
‘The Ogre’: In wild win, Casey Calvary roughed up Florida, then came up with the go-ahead tip-in that sent Gonzaga to the Elite Eight
Maybe the annual successes and the passage of 25 years have allowed Casey Calvary’s famed 1999 tip-in against Florida to slip from its long-held consideration as the greatest basket in Gonzaga history.
Jalen Suggs’ banked 40-footer at the buzzer to beat UCLA in the 2021 national semifinals had higher stakes and broader visibility.
And Jordan Mathews’ late 3 against West Virginia in the regional semis allowed the Zags to progress to their first Final Four appearance in 2017.
But for those returning to Spokane this week for an event to recognize the 25th anniversary of the Zags’ 1999 Elite Eight run, the phrase “tip-in” needs no further elaboration.
Calvary, a sophomore forward from Tacoma, put back an errant Quentin Hall floater from the lane with 4.4 seconds left in the West Region Sweet 16 for the 73-72 lead over the Gators. A frantic Florida shot at the buzzer failed.
By the time they untangled the roiling dog pile of Bulldogs on the court, the Zags realized that they were headed to the Elite Eight against Connecticut, and stood just 40 minutes away from a Final Four.
Trailing by a point, Calvary had taken the side-court in-bounds pass and kicked the ball to Hall, who drove toward the hoop. Calvary was still outside the 3-point arc when Hall rose from about 10 feet. With no one blocking him out, Calvary closed 20 feet or more in the time it took the ball to leave Hall’s hand and ricochet off the back iron.
As Zags fans came to expect, Calvary was capable of rising over opponents and unleashing violent, backboard-shaking tip-jams. In this case, he rose a foot over the rim, but was still 3 or 4 feet from the hoop.
Not fully in control of the ball, he volleyball-blocked it back toward the rim, where it fell in.
It wasn’t artful, but entirely appropriate. Had he bullishly charged and rose above the defenders to dunk the ball, he might have been called for over-the-back or an offensive foul.
Such precise, controlled levitation might have been expected from the son of an Army helicopter pilot.
In the locker room afterward, Calvary explained: “There were three or four guys in front of me … but they were all down here (holding his hand below his waist).”
Calvary made more than just a winning basket that night. His combativeness was woven into Zag DNA for generations.
In later interviews, coach Mark Few said that Calvary was “part of what made our team so tough and competitive … he simply did not tolerate weakness.”
Assistant coach Bill Grier said he called Calvary “The Ogre,” because he was so intense that “sometimes he gets those crazy eyes that look right into you.”
Few later recalled a more impressive dunk from the 6-foot-8 Calvary, the following season against top-ranked Cincinnati, when Calvary took a feed on a lane drive and met the Bearcats’ player of the year candidate Kenyon Martin at the rim.
Martin jammed an elbow into Calvary’s left eye, opening a five-stitch laceration, but the Zag powered through it for a savage posterization.
The Zags lost that one 75-68, but, in their first game against a national No. 1-ranked team, they played close until the end, and surely reinforced the idea that their NCAA run the previous spring was no fluke.
The statement by Calvary, in that singular moment, was that neither he, nor Zags from ensuing generations, were going to be intimidated by anybody in the country.
Huge baskets by latter-day Zags can’t be discounted as great moments, but the transformation of the program had been made by then.
It was Calvary’s timely tip, and his audacious competitiveness, that sustained it all during that first rush of success.
‘It’s all heart’: Quentin Hall barely stood 5-8, but proved giant in the Zags’ run that finally ended against UConn
In any discussion of an athlete’s will to win and refusal to give up, the name Quentin Hall must be highly ranked.
All the way to the final seconds of his final game as a Gonzaga Bulldog, the 1999 West Regional finals, Hall believed he could somehow pull out a victory for the Zags against eventual national champion Connecticut.
When he was whistled for his fifth foul with 6.2 seconds remaining, Hall essentially had to be removed from the floor. He immediately raced to the scorer’s table to demand a recount.
Despite his protest, he was disqualified, and UConn stretched out the margin to the final of 67-62. He led the Zags in points (18) and rebounds (8) and inspiration. Trash-talk and physical harassment were not recognized as official statistics back then.
The 5-foot-8 Bahamian point guard had reason to believe he could alter the course of the game. In the game’s final seven minutes, he scored 13 of GU’s 15 points.
With 35 seconds left, the Zags down 4, he got 6-foot-6, future NBA All-Star Rip Hamilton to leave his feet on a ball fake, to open space for the 3-pointer that closed the gap to a slender point.
That final 3-pointer was described in a column as a “double-clutched, side-armed improvisational masterpiece. All net.”
It wasn’t just Hall’s offense that played a crucial role, as he defensively dogged former McDonald’s All-American point guard Khalid El-Amin into 0-for-12 shooting and just five points.
In the era when the Zags wore comically baggy and long shorts, with a Bulldog logo the size of a dinner plate on the thigh, Hall looked shorter than his listed 5-8.
“They say he’s 5-8 but he’s really probably about 5-6,” said teammate Casey Calvary after the game. “But it’s all heart. He’s incredible; he just wants to win more than anybody he plays against.”
It took Hall a while to get to GU, so he was intent on making the most of it. Coach Mark Few traveled to the Caribbean to recruit him, and showed up at a sweltering blacktop court fully kitted in suit and tie.
But Few couldn’t get him directly into GU and steered him to North Idaho College. He later moved on to Yakima Valley College, where he had no scholarship, and worked as a dormitory janitor to earn his way.
Head coach Dan Monson knew that Hall was worth the wait. “He is, in my 11 years at Gonzaga, the best competitor we’ve ever had. Quentin Hall has as much ‘winner’ in him as any kid I’ve ever seen.”
UConn came into that game as the No. 1 seed in the West Region. Gonzaga was No. 10.
That El-Amin was so highly regarded only made the challenge more personal for Hall.
“I came in with every intent to outplay him,” Hall said after the game. “No matter who it was, El-Amin, whoever, I wanted to outplay him.”
He did, but it wasn’t quite enough.
“I want to be remembered as a winner,” Hall said. “As somebody who always gave all he had and never gave up.”
Even if they have to drag him off the court.