- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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Today, Gonzaga is a household name, having risen from the ranks of the mid-majors to become an established national basketball program over the past decade. None of that might have happened, though, had Pepperdine's Tezale Archie not missed a game-tying 3 in overtime of the 2000 WCC tournament finals.
It's hard to recall a time when Gonzaga wasn't the No. 1 seed in the WCC tourney, but that was the case in 2000. Just a year earlier, the Zags had thrilled the nation with a stirring NCAA Tournament run that ended a handful of points short of the Final Four. Now the Zags needed to knock off the top-seeded Waves to ensure a return trip to the dance.
If there is one game Gonzaga can point to that helped in its rise to prominence more than any other, it is this game, a 69-65 overtime decision. If the Zags hadn't made the NCAAs the season after their miraculous run, they might have faded back to being irrelevant. It's why one game during Championship Week can ultimately change the entire trajectory of a program.
"If we don't win that game, we're a one-hit wonder," said Matt Santangelo, the starting point guard on that squad. Santangelo, now 29, recently retired from playing in Italy to return to Spokane, Wash., to start a career in finance.
"I didn't realize at the time how important it was," Santangelo said. "But that was the last time we were an underdog in a championship game."
Gonzaga followed up the Elite Eight season -- which included wins over Minnesota, Stanford and Florida before a loss to Connecticut in Phoenix -- with a solid, but not spectacular, campaign. The Zags finished 11-3 in the WCC. They weren't a lock for an at-large. The Zags played a solid nonconference season but beat programs such as UCLA and Washington when they weren't at their peak. They lost to then-No. 1 Cincinnati in Cleveland and went 1-2 in the Rainbow Classic in Honolulu, losing to Oregon and Colorado.
So as you can see, the Zags weren't guaranteed anything without a WCC title. They also had to play the last two games of the conference tournament without their top defender, Mike Nilson, who had blown out his right Achilles tendon in the quarterfinals.
"What you have to understand is that we knew in August back then that we had to prepare for those three days in March," Santangelo said. "You always knew the magnitude of the WCC tournament. That's the difference from our era to this one. We had to prepare for those three days."
Santangelo said he was exhausted by the end of that overtime game against Pepperdine. He had played every minute, of all three games, for a total of "125 minutes in three days from Saturday to Monday."
Now put into perspective what happened after the Zags won this game. They went to the Sweet 16 that season, beating Louisville and St. John's. They repeated that feat the following season, knocking off Virginia and Indiana State. After a first-round exit in 2002, the Zags then made at least the second round in all four NCAAs from 2003 through '06, with another Sweet 16 thrown in.
Could all of this have happened if the Zags had lost to Pepperdine in 2000? Maybe, but it certainly would have been a lot harder.
"I just remember how courageous a win that was and it spoke to the character of the guys like [Richie] Frahm, Santangelo, [Casey] Calvary, Mark Spink, that whole group were tough, tough competitors," coach Mark Few said.
"It would have made everything that we did after that a lot harder," Few said. "We still had Blake Stepp and Cory Violette coming, but Dan Dickau was in the process of sitting out. So it could be a little bit deceiving."
Still, there was such a trickle-down effect from that win and the subsequent NCAA Tournament success. The Sweet 16 trips brought better and easier scheduling for high-profile games, and ultimately helped bring increased attention to the rest of the WCC. That doesn't even count the financial impact on the Zags' program.
The 1999-2000 season also was Few's first as head coach after replacing Dan Monson. Don't you think an NIT trip after an Elite Eight appearance would have taken a bit of the luster off Few's reputation?
"What that win did was help build confidence in our team, in our program," Few said. "It definitely helped give me confidence as a young coach."
Gonzaga has been a ranked program almost weekly since that game. Of course, recruiting has spun off of that and allowed the Zags to become one of the premier programs in the country and Few one of the nation's most successful coaches over the past eight seasons. You can find all sorts of games to point to as benchmarks during the Zags' rise to prominence, but it's hard to argue against the win over Pepperdine in the 2000 WCC final being among the most critical.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.