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Sometimes, it isn't if you win or lose, it IS how you play the game. Gonzaga and Arizona played a whale of a game, perhaps one of the greatest in NCAA tournament history. Neither team wanted to go home nor did either team deserve to go, but, unfortunately one had to. In a game that embodied all of what college basketball is about, the #1 seeded Arizona Wildcats clawed out a victory over the #9 seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs, 96-95 in double overtime.
The game began just like any other and seemed to favor the Wildcats. Their senior floor leader, Jason Gardner, had struggled shooting the ball in his previous three games, but rediscovered his shooting touch in the opening minutes, sinking two treys and giving Arizona the early lead. After falling behind by eight points, the Zags shut down Arizona's three point threat and tied the game. Tony Skinner hit a trey to give Gonzaga the three point advantage at the half, 44-41. Skinner and Ronny Turiaf contributed 15 and 12 points, respectively, in the first half. Now, anything seemed possible.
The Wildcats scored the first six points coming out of intermission to regain the lead. Behind some spectacular passing by Luke Walton, Arizona increased their advantage 65-57, before Blake Stepp, who had been struggling shooting from behind the arc, sank a long three plus the foul. He converted the free-throw and made it only a four point game. With only 2:16 remaining, Ronny Turiaf was whistled for his fifth foul. It could have spelled doom for the Zags; Ronny was the only Bulldog capable of containing Arizona's lanky forward, Channing Frye, and had done some damage on the offensive end, scoring 16 points. The Bulldogs replaced Ronny with Richard Fox, who had missed a month with a broken finger and had played less than a minute in the Bulldogs' first round victory over Cincinnati. Richard would step up to the challenge and become one of the many heroes for the Zags. With the seconds waning and the Zags still trailing, the Zags were forced to foul. Gardner made three of four free-throws in the final 25 seconds, but he missed his final attempt and gave the Bulldogs a chance, with the difference being only two points. Stepp launched a three, but it hit the front of the rim. Then, out of nowhere, Tony Skinner skied to gather the rebound and bank in a shot at the final buzzer. His shot tied the game at 78 and was the first of some miraculous shots by the Bulldogs.
Fans in the Spokane Arena watched the Wisconsin-Tulsa game, then 6000 stayed to watch the Zags play the Wildcats on the big screen.
The first overtime saw Gonzaga and Arizona trade baskets, until Winston Brooks was tagged with his fifth foul after tripping Gardner. Brooks had been given the assignment of guarding Gardner and had stuck to him throughout the game. Winston, who had a remarkable tournament, scored 5 points, collected 6 boards, dished 4 assists, and stole one pass in an inspiring final effort as a Bulldog. Gardner sunk both free-throws and Rick Anderson scored a basket to give Arizona the 87-84 lead. But Stepp hit a critical three at the top of the key to tie the game at 87 with just over a minute remaining in OT. Walton threw the ball away on their next possession and Fox scored on a heart-stopping inbounds play to give Gonzaga the 89-87 advantage with 14.5 seconds to go. It appeared as though the Zags might have the win. But Walton had other ideas. He powered the ball inside and sunk the shot to tie things up again. Stepp missed a shot just inside midcourt as the buzzer sounded. Double overtime.
In the second overtime, both teams continued to trade blows with no one capable of delivering the knockout punch. It came down to Salim Stoudamire hitting on a high arching runner in the key to give Arizona the one point lead, 96-95, with 2:04 remaining. But Gonzaga had time for two good looks. Two shots by Fox and Skinner neither drew rim and Gonzaga was whistled for a shot-clock violation. Gonzaga's coaching staff didn't like the call, saying Gardner had possession of the ball before Skinner took his shot. The referees disagreed and gave Arizona the ball. With 22 ticks on the clock, Stoudamire attempted to slice through a double team, but Cory Violette got a hand on the ball and the ball was knocked out of bounds. The referee initially said it was Arizona's ball, but another ref corrected him saying the ball hit Stoudamire's leg before sailing out of bounds. Gonzaga had a chance for the win; time seemed to stand still. Stepp dribbled the ball upcourt and found Fox posting. Tony Skinner was wide open at the arc on a kick-out pass from Fox, but was just off the mark. Blake collected the rebound, put Stoudamire in the air with a fake and stepped through for an 8-foot attempt off the glass. It was just a little long, bringing an end to the classic contest. After playing 50 minutes of inspired basketball both teams collapsed to the floor; one team in tears, the other in relief and joy.
Both teams showed class by congratulating and embracing one another. The fans in attendance gave a standing ovation for a brilliantly played basketball game. The contest was purely played, with neither team turning the ball over more than ten times for all 50 minutes.
Is it possible to have a victory in defeat? Gonzaga proved they belong amongst the elite and no longer deserve the title ‘mid-major.' The Bulldogs left all they had on the court, likewise with the Wildcats, and have nothing to be ashamed of. "That was as good of a team as I've played in my five years here," said Walton. Fellow Wildcat senior Rick Anderson echoed Walton's words: "This was the greatest game I ever played in."
Zags Hoops would like to thank the Zags for a terrific season and one of the best games ever played in college basketball. Special appreciation to our seniors, Zach and Winston, two great ball players and two great people. Thanks for the memories! We will miss you!