I didn't think much could top the Kansas game, but this game did. By a mile. I have had the pleasure of seeing some amazing basketball games in my life, but I can't really imagine something that will be more entertaining, gut wrenching or dramatic.
Looking back I am in awe, but at the time it was an agonizing experience. I was a nervous wreck. I could not cheer or jeer at press row, I could only suffer. Midway in the second half, fellow Cat Tracks writer Judd Graham turned to me and asked if I was nervous.
"Nah, they're due for a run," I said confidently.
The run came, 9-0 and I started to think about writing my story and confirming reservations for Anaheim. Like most opponents, I expected Gonzaga to fold. After all the mighty Wildcats just scored nine in a row. It was time to throw in the towel. That didn't happen.
This wasn't the Gonzaga team that fell apart last year against Wyoming. This was the team that made it to three straight Sweet 16s. This was a team that must have underachieved, because the team I saw in Salt Lake City was every bit as good as Kansas and Texas. Blake Stepp is clutch. Tony Skinner is a guy I would want on my team. The front court is as deep as anyone's. Don't even get me started on Ronny Turiaf. Hinrich and Collison are good, but Stepp and Turiaf are right there.
Gonzaga did not quit and I did get nervous. My palms got damp. I chewed my fingernails, and when they got too short I went to work on my pen. In the final minutes my stomach did flip-flops. Overtime saw my fingers go numb. By the second overtime my legs were shaking and I wanted to puke. I loved it.
Late in the game, a volunteer sitting at press row looked at her watch and remarked to me, "it's only seven, it seems like it's ten o'clock."
I didn't say it to her then, but it seemed like it took five hours because the game was in slow motion. How long did it take Jason Gardner's first free throw to eke its way over the front of the rim? Stepp's potential game winner didn't want to come down after the miss. It seemed like Channing Frye and Rick Anderson could only wait and watch as the rebound waited to come down.
As slow as the ball was, Tony Skinner was a blur. He came from nowhere for the tip. He was a navy blue streak parting a sea of white. He got his hand on the ball and then time slowed down again. This time the ball crawled to the rim. When it finally hit the iron it bounced straight up. At the time I thought it was going to bounce away. I did not see Richard Fox jump up. I was focused on the ball. As it started to descend I realized my initial evaluation was off. It was not going to bounce away. It was heading straight down.
I've been told that replay shows that Fox indeed touched the ball. Technically it was offensive goaltending, but realistically it had nothing to do with the ball falling through the hoop. It wouldn't be the first, or last call, the officials would miss.
The tip fell and the Bulldogs celebrated like they had won the national championship. They were so happy, so excited that I had to look at the scoreboard to make sure they didn't just win. For a second my heart dropped, did I have the score wrong? People keep pointing out that Jason Gardner missed the free throw that would have put the Wildcats up three. They say the Cats win if he makes it. I'm not so sure. Don't you get the feeling that Gonzaga makes the three if they are down three? Wasn't this destined to go to overtime?
Overtime concerned me. The Cats fell flat in LA when the game went to OT. Gonzaga had all the momentum. It looked like the Cats season could end.
Things were not looking good. The zone was wreaking havoc. The Cats went without a field goal over the final four minutes of regulation. Shots wouldn't fall and Stepp was hot. Overtime was not much better. Frye hit a jumper to open the period, but then missed two field goals and a free throw. He was fouled on his third shot and the look of frustration on his face told the story.
The Cats had a three-point lead after Walton found Anderson down low for the umpteenth time. You wanted to feel safe, but you knew you couldn't. Stepp was too hot, too good. Eight seconds later the game was tied.
The Cats came down and Walton sailed a pass over Frye's head. It was the eighth turnover for Arizona. Too bad the refs refused to call an obvious hold. Even the Gonzaga fans behind me, the one's who rode the refs all game long, knew they got away with one.
Slow motion started again and time crawled. The clock kept ticking down. Gonzaga was milking it, but the defense was not making it any easier. Stepp didn't have a look. Skinner didn't have a look. The ball wound up in Kyle Bankhead's hands. You could feel just a tad safer. Bankhead had played spot minutes until Winston Brooks fouled out. He is a good shooter, but not in the zone that Stepp and Skinner were in. Bankhead didn't shoot, he didn't need the zone, he passed. He found Richard Fox down low. Very low, he couldn't get much lower. He caught the ball on the block and powered up, kissed the ball off the glass and gave the bulldogs the lead.
Fox was nails. Not just on that shot, but the whole game. Like Bankhead he played sparingly until a player got into foul trouble. Fox, all 6-11, 275 pounds of him. My only question was, where was he before? He was cut from the Rob Little mold. He's a big body who can do some things. He's the perfect nemesis for this Wildcat team. He pushed Zach Gourde to the bench, he made Cory Violette's struggles a non-issue.
His 13 points and five rebounds were just part of the story. His four fouls and physical play were just as key. He's a big game guy and he played best in the biggest game. His career highs in scoring were against Georgia and St. Joe's. His best rebounding game came against NC State. He shows up and showed up. Oh yeah, and he was still recovering from a broken hand.
The Cats eschewed a timeout. Gardner pushed the ball up the court. Fifteen seconds were plenty of time to score. Olson did not want Gonzaga to set up a defense. He trusted his seniors. Walton got the ball and decided that he would extend his career. As clutch as Gardner can be he hasn't won or tied a game at the buzzer. Walton, who we'd later learn had the flu and hadn't eaten more than a bowl of cereal all day, started to back down his defender. Here he was 45 minutes in, just a few cornflakes in his system and he was going to decide his fate. His position was good, his shot was good and a Skinner desperation heave for the Bulldogs a few seconds later was not.
The crowd sighed. For a brief moment the energy left the building. By the time the teams were back at their benches the buzz was back.
The second overtime belonged to Stoudamire. He was exhausted. He had chased step and skinner around all day. The altitude was affecting his asthma. His knees were hurting. After the game he's collapse in the locker room, ice on both knees and various body parts. His teammates had to help him move. It was reminiscent of Kellen Winslow of the Chargers being carried off the Orange Bowl field following an overtime playoff win over the Dolphins.
On the court nothing bothered Stoudamire. He put the pain and fatigue on the backburner. He scored the final five points for the Wildcats. He hit an early three and had a floater in the lane that proved to be the game winner. Stoudamire wanted the ball. He was one of the few players who remained aggressive on offense.
Stoudamire was also involved in one of the more controversial plays of the game. The Wildcats had the ball and were looking to take as much time off the clock as possible. They moved the ball around the perimeter and Stoudamire would up in front of the Wildcat bench. Two Gonzaga players trapped him and after a lot of contact the ball went out of bounds. The official sprinted in and it looked like he was going to call the foul. His hand started to point at one of the Bulldogs and at the last second he switched and awarded the Wildcats the ball. It appeared as if he was hesitant to call a foul with 22 seconds left. Instead of giving the Wildcats' best foul shooter a pair of free throws that could lock-up at least another overtime period and possibly a win, he simply gave them possession.
Things seemed fine for Arizona except another official overruled him, correctly stating that the ball went off Stoudamire's knee before going out of bounds. Gonzaga had the ball and a chance to win the game. The first official, the one who didn't want to decide the game, the one who tried to swallow his whistle, glared at the second. He was trying to let the players settle the game, not an official.
The Bulldogs had one last chance. They appeared calm. They had 22 seconds, they had an eternity. The Bulldogs took time off the clock, too much time. Skinner put up a three from the corner, not the best look, and all the crowd could do was wait. The ball spun and drifted to the hoop. It didn't look particularly good, but neither did his tip at the end of regulation. The ball hit and it was instantly apparent that it was too hard. Both teams' big men jumped for the rebound, but it sailed over their heads. Stepp streaked in and the ball found him as if it wanted to be in his arms. Stepp found himself 10 feet away from the hoop, no one near, with a chance to win the game.
There were over two seconds left. Stepp, a devastating three-point shooter, was in close, all alone with plenty of time. He proved to be too close, too open, with too much time. Stepp had not hit a midrange jumper in two games. He shoots from deep or goes to the rack. He was in no man's land. He also rushed the shot. Had he known he had the time he would have set his feet. As it was he was leaning to his right and seemed to overcompensate to the left. The shot hit the glass high and left. It bounced off, just grazing the iron.
The ball landed in Walton's hands. No whistles, no miracles. Just 11 survivors. Hassan Adams and Chris Rodgers led the charge off the bench, looking for anyone to hug. Walton collapsed, the ball in his arms. Jason Gardner sprinted towards press row, hoping and jumping. At first it looked like he wanted to jump up on the table. He thought better of it and started to tug on the "Arizona" on the front of his jersey. Again he thought better of it turned towards the Wildcat fans, pointed to his mother and before he could leave the court was gathered up by a CBS staffer to do an interview.
This game had it all. Blake Stepp struggling for 30:00 and then exploding over the final 20:00. For the end of regulation and the two overtimes it was hard to imagine a more clutch player. As an Arizona grad I am thrilled that his last shot did not fall, but in a strange way it is a shame. He carried that team.
Rick Anderson played as if he did not want his college career to end. He did everything he could. He fought for every board, dove for every loose ball. His stats were good, but they barely told the story. He got beat up on every rebound. He got slapped, pounded and on one rebound had Skinner draped on his back like a navy blue cape. Anderson is often the forgotten man on this team, but no Wildcat fan should forget Anderson.
Seeing these kids after the game it was apparent that they knew they had just done something special. Both sides had an appreciation for just how special this game was. They all reference ESPN Classic and it was not youthful hyperbole. This game was that special. If the Wildcats go on to win the national title, this will be the game that defines the season. This will be the game that defines the team.
As corny as it sounds, I actually feel as if my life is just a little better for having witnessed it live. I can only imagine what it would have been like to play in it.