A decade ago in the desert, UConn and Gonzaga made the leap
Connecticut was the program that couldn't quite get over the hump. Gonzaga was the program known for John Stockton but not much else.
In a Phoenix arena nearly a decade ago, two programs were elevated to a level unprecedented for their universities. Behind 21 points from Richard Hamilton and a double-double from Kevin Freeman, Connecticut beat 10th-seeded Gonzaga, 67-62, in a thrilling 1999 Elite Eight matchup that sent the Huskies to their first Final Four.
"Just look at both teams' win-loss records since then," Connecticut head coach Jim Calhoun said. "We've both had national player of the years, successes, and [UConn] has had national championships.
"If we don't win that game, then they have a great story to tell. But now we both have great stories to tell."
UConn won the national title the following week in St. Petersburg, Fla., then won another in 2004. Calhoun was inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame in 2005. Since that Elite Eight matchup, the Huskies have never looked back as one of the premier programs in the country.
Gonzaga hasn't, either. Although the Zags haven't reached the peak of college hoops nor returned to the Elite Eight, the program has never been the same.
The little Jesuit school in Spokane, Wash., hasn't missed an NCAA tournament since. Gonzaga has gone to three Sweet 16s, plays a nationally televised schedule and recruits nationwide. The Zags' success has put Mark Few, who replaced Dan Monson after Monson left to coach Minnesota following the loss to the Huskies, into the top tier of active winning coaches with a stellar 243-60 record.
The Huskies and Zags have played twice since that Elite Eight contest. In 2005, they battled it out in one of the most memorable Maui Invitational finals ever, won by Connecticut, 65-63, on a Denham Brown turnaround jumper with 1.1 seconds left. Then they played last season in Boston, and the Bulldogs won by three points.
Now it's time for Saturday's Battle of Seattle, a top-10 matchup between No. 2 (UConn) and No. 7 (Gonzaga). They are both Final Four contenders and potentially top seeds in a group of teams that are starting to fall in line behind title favorite North Carolina.
But they are forever linked to that Elite Eight game in Phoenix 10 years ago this March.
But they'd lacked the national title and the Final Four appearance. They had to reach the Big Show. And they found themselves in an incredibly tight game against a Cinderella that had upset Minnesota, Stanford and Florida.
Calhoun said Khalid El-Amin's foul trouble caused the game to tighten up. El-Amin had four fouls and had been sitting for a spell.
"At one point we had a nine or 10-point lead, and it looked like we were going to pull away, and then we started to realize what would happen if we did pull away -- we would go to the Final Four," Calhoun said. "We let up a bit."
Calhoun said he still looks at the 1999 Gonzaga team as the toughest UConn had played to date that season.
"They were great offensively and had physical guards," Calhoun said.
One of those guards, Quentin Hall, led the Zags with 18 points, including a 3 with 35 seconds left that cut the UConn lead to one.
If we don't win that game, then they have a great story to tell. But now we both have great stories to tell.
Former Gonzaga guard Richie Frahm, who's awaiting a potential European contract while working out in Spokane, said he remembers how the Zags were at first on an emotional whirlwind just because they were in the game.
But then the game got close, "and we were right there to win it," Frahm said. "Had we won it, we would have played Ohio State, and we would have had a good chance to win that and then go against Duke in the title game. And in that situation, anything can happen."
The Zags didn't win it, though. El-Amin, who was 0-of-12 from the field that day, sank two crucial free throws, and the Huskies buckled down on defense in the final seconds.
Few, who was Monson's top assistant at the time, said he mostly remembers how close the Bulldogs were to a Final Four trip.
"We were right there, but I remember how incredibly tough and hard-nosed they were," Few said. "I remember how good a scorer Rip Hamilton was and how much of a competitor Quentin Hall was for us. We fought and scratched and clawed to put ourselves in position. It was pretty inspiring."
Monson took the Minnesota job shortly thereafter, and Few was promoted.
Being in that game "catapulted everything for us," Few said. "It was the start of the run. It was the beginning of this whole Gonzaga basketball phenomenon."
In the previous 10 years, Gonzaga's record was 192-108. The team had been to one NCAA tournament game and lost it in 1995. The Zags had won three West Coast Conference regular-season titles and just one WCC tournament championship.
Since then, they've won eight WCC titles and seven WCC tournament titles. They've made three Sweet 16 trips (2000, '01 and '06) and have a 9-9 NCAA record.
"We've been in the Top 25 every year since that point," Few said. "I remember at that point one of the things UConn hadn't done was get to a Final Four. They've done that, won two national championships and became a force in recruiting and an elite, elite player in college basketball."
Frahm said it's hard to fathom how successful the Zags have become since that game. He said his team was hardly an overwhelming favorite in the 1999 game because it had lost seven regular-season games.
"Some of the teams we lost to then, this Gonzaga team would beat by 40," Frahm said. "What Coach Few has done with that program is amazing, with the ability to recruit and develop talent. This Gonzaga team has so much more talent. I hope Gonzaga can give UConn their first loss of the season."
"When they are dialed in, they are a handful, because you're not going to out-talent or out-tough them," Few said. "They are an impressive, impressive group."
Calhoun said he has been impressed by Few's decision to stay at Gonzaga the past 10 years. He also remarked how the 2005 Maui Invitational final was a "table-setting game" for the rest of the season. The Huskies eventually earned a No. 1 seed but were upset by George Mason in the Elite Eight. Gonzaga, with Adam Morrison, was knocked out in a thrilling game against UCLA in the Sweet 16.
"[Saturday's game] will show how mentally tough we are," Calhoun said.
It'll also show us something else.
Saturday's Battle of Seattle is a contest between a pair of true Final Four contenders. It's a game that everyone in the college basketball world can't wait to see. On this date 10 years ago, that statement would've been unthinkable.
Then March 20, 1999 happened. And nothing for these two programs has been the same since.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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