SALT LAKE CITY — With two minutes remaining in a one-point game, and the crowd pulling hard for the little guys, and the refs begging off, the Gonzaga Bulldogs had to be wondering: They gave up that for this?
Success can be such a pain.
When did all this happen? Gradually, in a sense. Gonzaga has been to the NCAA tournament 15 consecutive years. But it hasn’t been all that long since it became one of the bad guys. You know the type: big, bold and bodacious. Everyone gets on its case.
Whatever happened to the little team that could?
It went wherever Adam Morrison’s mustache took it. (Last check, Turkey.)
This team gets addressed by “Your Majesty.”
Thursday at EnergySolutions Arena, the Bulldogs held off feisty Southern University in a 64-58 NCAA tournament thriller. It was close, right down to the final handshakes. Much of that had to do with fine coaching and dogged determination on the part of SU, pride of the Southwestern Athletic Conference. The rest had to do with Gonzaga, which is officially a big-time basketball program — even if Duke might disagree.
“We’re not sneaking up on anybody,” Zags assistant coach Donny Daniels said.
That might be the understatement of the month. Seeing how Gonzaga is ranked No. 1, it’s as sneaky as a brass band. Speaking of which, it would be hard to even think about strategy, much less explain it, if you coached in Thursday’s game. That was partially due to the crowd, but largely due to the SU band, which played loud (get-me-an-aspirin loud) and long throughout.
It’s hard not to respect a band whose conductor wears a T-shirt that says, “War time!” on the back.
Gonzaga spent years being quiet. Quietly John Stockton put the school on the map. Morrison quietly won an NCAA player of the year award in 2006. So when did this happen? Was it in 1999, when head coach Mark Few was an assistant, and the Zags made the field for just the second time? That year they earned the first of five trips to the Sweet 16. Was it in 2009, when they lost to North Carolina, the eventual national champs?
Actually, it happened over a long time and all at once, sort of like Betty White.
“I think it happened this year, especially because being the No. 1-ranked team is like, well, being (the) No. 1-ranked team in (the) country,” Daniels said.
It happened when Gonzaga arrived early and stayed late in the polls, a top 25 team in the preseason and No. 12 by Week 4.
So the drumbeat has gone on since the early season and risen after that. By week 17 the Zags were as hard to ignore as, well, the SU band. The following week they were No. 1 for the first time in history.
That’s how the Zags arrived on Thursday — with a target on their backs. Southern was all over them, pushing, shoving and testing the refs, who let the teams play. They ganged up on star center Kelly Olynyk early, holding him to four first-half points. Though he ended with 21, SU was all over him down the stretch. He smartly kicked to Gary Bell and Kevin Pangos, who made jumpers and free throws in the clutch.
Aside from the red-and-blue-clad Gonzaga boosters in the audience, all others were openly pulling for the little team from Baton Rouge, La. This was a reversal from the good old underdog days for the Zags.
Wasn’t it easier back when people thought Gonzaga was a brand of cheese? Little guy or behemoth, which is the best way to go?
“Um, tough question, really tough,” Olynyk said. He thought about it for a couple of beats. “For this year, I guess it’s better to be the Gonzaga we are now, winning games, playing ball. It’s a great family. There’s nothing more you can ask for.”
Life gets complicated when you’re at the top.
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