And it was a long time in the making. If that night was the rebirth of Cougar basketball, then consider the hiring of Dick Bennett in the Spring of 2003 as the conception, which means there was a three-and-a-half-year gestation period ... not bad considering we were once the "cellar dwellers" of the Pac-10.
When Coach Bennett recruited us -- Low, Akognon, Cowgill, Henry, Weaver, and me -- he sold us on a vision. The cliff notes version is this: If you all come here, we have the chance to do something special. It will not be easy. If fact, it will take everything you have. And that might not even be enough. Deal?
And so began the seemingly impossible task of figuring out how to compete against NBA talent with a bunch of misfits that, for the most part, didn't have a ton of options at other D-1 schools. But that turned out to be just what the doctor ordered. You see, Dick always said in order to turn around a program, you have to find a group of guys that you can lose with before you'll be able to win.
Needless to say, he did a heck of a job of finding players to lose with. I'm sure you can recall when the Cowboys from Oklahoma State narrowly avoided being upset by the Cougs in 2004. Although they found some garbage time minutes to make it look worse than it was, I believe the finally tally read 20-something to 80-something. And that's no typo.
But if we didn't believe it before that game, we certainly did afterward: We were underdogs.
I've heard the phrase "underdog mentality" preached more than "Jesus Saves." And my dad is a pastor!!
While I hold both as true, I will choose to focus on the former. Because that mentality is exactly what fueled us that night against Gonzaga at Beasley and ultimately became our battle cry.
So when I walked to my Astrobiology class on the morning of that Dec. 5 game and noticed roughly 20 people wearing Gonzaga gear, I was happy. Because underdogs don't need a following.
Two-and-a-half-years earlier, in the summer of 2004, the sight of other students wearing Zags shirts or gear from other Pac-10 schools drove me nuts. Perhaps because I hadn't fully converted to the underdog mentality yet. You see, I hadn't gone through failure, embarrassing blowouts, surgeries, root canals, and a dislocated ankle yet. But getting your teeth kicked in, literally and figuratively, tends to do something to you.
Maybe Dick was right after all.
There are several memories from that night I would like to share. Because just as I mentioned in a previous article, it's not all about the players and coaches. It's about us. And let me tell you this: When I walked out to shoot around before the game and saw most of the seats already full, a shot of adrenaline shot through my body. I can remember thinking, "These fans deserve this!"
In the locker room pre-game, I will never forget Taylor Rochestie walking over and loading up our favorite song at the time, "Go Getta," on his iPod and sharing the ear buds. Every time I hear that song, it takes me back to 34 minutes before the Gonzaga game.
As Tony Bennett delivered his pre-game speech, my body came pretty close to being completely numb. And it stayed that way for the next 20 minutes until something finally broke the ice.
Early in the game, one of their players, in obvious jest, said "Shoot it!" as I passed the ball from the wing to the top of the key. That's when the ice broke.
Something switched in my mind and I knew the next time I touched it I was going to do exactly that. I didn't know if I was going to make it or not, but I knew I was shooting it.
Thankfully, it went in. From that point at the beginning of the game until the last shot I made at the end, I honestly don't remember a lot of details. But I do remember thinking that this is what it's like to play with an underdog mentality.
My detailed memory comes back to me with 40-some seconds left in the game when we were up by five. I believe the shot clock read 10 seconds or so, with the Cougs inbounding under our hoop. Although the play wasn't designed to be inbounded to me, for a split second before the referee handed the ball to Derrick Low I considered the time left on the shot clock and our lead, and wondered if it would be best for us to drain another 8 seconds or so off the clock before getting a shot.
My instincts told me to fire away if the ball came my way, which is exactly what I did.
Whenever I see a replay of that shot, the eruption of noise in Beasley as the shot fell still gives me goose bumps. And as the camera pans on me backpedaling, it appears I am calm. But that camera doesn't tell the whole story. The only way to describe how I felt then was complete numbness in my entire body. I'm not sure what an out-of-body experience feels like, but this had to have been close. In that moment, I swore to myself I would never forget this feeling.
And I never have.
At the buzzer, as the students came storming down to celebrate and show their excitement, a gray-haired man stayed in the stands watching. He didn't really need to be down there anyway. A simple fist pump and a head nod to his son was all I needed to see that he approved. So to the man that started it all, and to his son that made us believe, thank you.
But don't let the excitement or ramifications of that game fool you: We were just a bunch of no-names with an underdog mentality. And we wouldn't have it any other way.
YouTube highlights of Coug victory over Zags in December 2006.