"This has to be one of the greatest games ever played," said Jason Gardner. "It's going to be on ESPN Classic."
Twice shots fell in the final seconds to extend the game, but the magic ran out for Gonzaga in the end. The Bulldogs got two looks at the bucket in the final five seconds, but Blake Stepp's last second, off balance bank shot was off the mark and the Wildcats escaped, their dream of a national title still alive.
"Well, it was an awesome game to be involved in," said Gonzaga coach Mark Few. "It was an unbelievable effort on both sides and it's unfortunate that there has to be a winner and a loser."
Stepp had a performance for the ages. The junior guard was limited for the first 29:00, but took over the rest of the way and did all he could to keep the ninth-seeded Bulldogs alive against the favored Wildcats.
"Blake's been Blake," Few said. "He's been so incredible this year."
Stepp scored 16 points down the stretch to keep the Bulldogs alive. When Arizona used a 9-2 run to open a 65-57 lead it was Stepp who hit a three, and then completed a four-point play to get within two.
In the first overtime, Stepp tied the game at 87 with his fourth and final three-pointer of the game. He ran the offense, he played defense and in the end he was not far off the mark on the potential game winner.
All told Stepp had 25 points and eight assists.
It was the Bulldogs who had to pull out a miracle to extend the game. With the Wildcats up two Stepp attempted a three that missed and appeared to be settling into the hands of two Wildcat players. Before the game winning rebound could be corralled, Tony Skinner came in from the wing, split the Wildcat players and tipped the ball towards the rim. The ball hit the iron and bounced straight up, for a moment it appeared to be drifting away, but when it came down it settled in the hoop and Gonzaga celebrated like it had won the national championship.
Skinner was big all game. Just as Stepp was the key late, Skinner was the key early. The junior had 15 of his 25 points in the first half and kept the Bulldogs alive while Stepp was struggling to find his groove. Skinner hit big three after big three. He tied the game at 74 in regulation and knotted it at 82 in the first overtime. He calmly sank two free throws to give the Zags a 95-94 lead. It would prove to be the team's final points.
Even more impressive, Skinner played all 50 minutes, not once taking a seat on the bench.
"I was running up and down the court with Skinner, guarding him and I was like, ‘you getting tired? You've been playing the whole game'," Rick Anderson said. "He was like, ‘I never get tired.' And I just looked at him like are you kidding me? Then I said, ‘all right, let's go, let's start playing.'"
In overtime, it was Luke Walton who had to hit the big shot. The Bulldogs gained possession after Walton threw away a pass to Channing Frye and Richard Fox got a lay-in with just 15 seconds to play. The Cats came down, shunning a timeout and Walton redeemed himself with a tough leaner in the post. A desperation three by Skinner fell short and sent the game to a second OT.
The lay-in was not the only big play by the little used Fox. The 6-11 junior, who just came back from a broken hand, had to log 19 minutes, most coming after starter Rony Turiaf fouled out. Fox scored 13 points, nine of which came in the final 14 seconds of regulation and overtime. He also snapped a 7-0 Wildcat run in the second half with four straight points after coming in to relieve the foul-plagued Turiaf.
Surprisingly the tide turned for Gonzaga after Turiaf was in foul trouble. With their talented center on the bench, the Bulldogs went to a zone that gave the Wildcats fits. Not only could the Cats not dump it in inside, where they were effective, but they could not get good looks on the outside either. The Cats hit a three-pointer with 8:18 left in regulation, but would not nail another until Salim Stoudamire drained one with just 2:47 left in the second overtime.
The officials called it loose inside and the big men obliged. Both teams pounded each other in the post, and although the bigger Bulldogs prefer that style, it did not prevent the more finesse Cats from doing well inside. The Arizona post players scored 55 points and ripped down 29 rebounds. The Bulldogs unit countered with 47 and 21 respectively.
Arizona was not without its share of heroes as well. Rick Anderson did everything he could to keep his college career alive. He fought for every rebound, dove for lose balls and after picking up his fourth foul, played 9:11 without gaining another. Anderson scored 17 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and even had two assists.
Like Anderson, Frye was saddled with four fouls, only he picked up his fourth with over 9:00 to go. Olson put him in the game with 5:00 to play and he lasted the final 15:00 without a disqualification.
"We held Channing Frye out until the five-minute mark and we felt we had to go with him," Lute Olson said. "There was no sense of saving anybody. I thought both of them (Frye and Anderson) used good judgement."
Frye, despite being hounded and pounded all game long, matched Gardner with 22 points and added 12 rebounds plus a pair of blocks and steals.
"Tonight it was just a battle down there from the tip," Frye said. "I felt like we did the job and they did what they had to do."
No play epitomized this day more than when he kept possession for the Wildcats following a missed free throw. With the ball squirming around on the floor, Anderson dove and tipped it out near midcourt where Walton was waiting.
In addition to his huge shot in overtime, Walton made play after play. The senior had 16 points and a game high nine assists and three steals. When the Bulldogs went into the zone, Walton looked to get the ball inside and attacked the zone off the dribble to free up his teammates.
While the big men were key late, Jason Gardner and Salim Stoudamire were big early. The pair hit a trio of three-pointers in the opening minutes, which made the Bulldogs re-think their strategy of clogging the middle. Gardner, who has struggle the past two games with his jump shot, hit his first two threes then attacked the inside when they took away the perimeter. He finished with 22 points, eight of which came on free throws. He hit 8-of-9 free throws, three of four in the final minute, and added two more in overtime to put Arizona ahead. His lone miss would have put the Cats up three and prevented the Bulldogs from sending it into overtime with the tip.
The Bulldogs came out determined to make Arizona beat them from the perimeter. The Wildcats obliged, knocking down 3-of-6 three-point attempts before the first television timeout. Gardner started things off, hitting two from the top, while Walton added the lone short shot. Down 8-2, Gonzaga added five quick points, including a Skinner three. Stoudamire, who missed his first two attempts, nailed a three-pointer from the corner and put the Cats up 11-7.
Arizona remained hot out of the timeout and added to their lead with two quick buckets. Gonzaga countered with another five in a row, including a rare Winston Brooks three to cut it to 15-12.
The Cats built on their lead, but Skinner and Turiaf quickly whittled it back down to two, 26-24. Skinner crashed the boards and got a tip, then drained his second three.