Saturday, March 22, 2003
Zags latest March moment ends in defeat
By Bruce Feldman
ESPN The Magazine
SALT LAKE CITY -- Zach Gourde's eyes began to well up. His nose started twitching. Whatever the question is that he was just asked, didn't seem to matter much. Gourde looked down and shook his head.
"I just don't wanna take this off," the fifth-year senior said, tugging both hands on the word GONZAGA as he peeled the sweat-soaked jersey from his chest.
|Gonzaga's Blake Stepp shows the emotional effects of losing in double overtime.|
Gourde had just played his last game as a Zag. A game top-seeded Arizona won 96-95 in double-overtime. A game that marked the end of a career that started when Gonzaga, America's darlings of March, went to the Elite Eight.
"We're not into moral victories," Gourde said. "But if you're gonna lose, this is the way to go out."
Gonzaga pushing No. 1 seed Arizona to the brink of disaster was the game of the 2003 NCAA Tournament, so far. It'll likely remain the game of the tournament despite the drama to come Sunday, next week or in New Orleans.
Games like this materialize once every decade or so. And, it would've been a classic no matter who was playing. But the drama was even more riveting because it was mighty Arizona that was on the ropes.
Saturday in Salt Lake City was unofficially David vs. Goliath day, what with perennial powers Duke and Arizona facing teams from mid-major conferences; Gonzaga from the West Coast Conference and Central Michigan from the Mid-American Conference. But truth is, it's an insult to call the Zags a Cinderella these days.
"They're waaaay too good for that label," said Arizona assistant coach Josh Pastner. "Maybe it was OK to call them Cinderella after the first year. Maybe even after the second year, but now, no way."
Central Michigan is newer to the dance and a better fit in the Cinderella role. Of course, the glass slipper needs to be a size-17 because the Chips are fronted by future first-rounder Chris Kaman. But pulling off two upsets in less than 48 hours -- at altitude -- was more than the Chips had in them.
The double-teams Kaman saw Thursday night against sixth-seeded Creighton were quadruple-team jobs. And former all-state football player Tony Bowne, the gritty 6-foot-3, 210-pound Chips swingman who pestered Bluejays' sharpshooter Kyle Korver into a 7-for-14 shooting performance in the first round, just couldn't keep after Duke's J.J. Redick.
The 6-4 Blue Devil freshman (26 points) started out hitting 18-footers and by midway through the second half had extended his range out to Park City. CMU never had anything close to an answer for Duke slasher Dahntay Jones (28 points). Meanwhile, Mike Manceil, the guy who carried CMU Thursday night with 29, was held to five points on 1-for-9 shooting.
"Duke pushed their will upon us," said CMU coach Jay Smith, pointing to the 21 turnovers Duke forced the Chips into.
Credit Duke for playing tight defense and knifing through CMU's defense a lot better than Creighton did. But it just never seemed like the Chips had much life left in them by Saturday night. Then again, neither did the crowd -- not after the thriller the Zags and Arizona played out for the crowd in the Huntsman Center in the first half of the day's doubleheader.
The Zags certainly did have their chances, both in regulation and in both overtime sessions to get the upset, but by late in the game, they just didn't have the legs left to sink their shots. Troy Skinner, who was 5-for-11 from 3-point range, missed a triple at the end of regulation, while dead-eye guard Blake Stepp missed an 8-footer that would have sent the Zags into their fourth Sweet 16 in five years.
"We got lucky in the end," said Arizona forward Rick Anderson.
Richard Fox, a reserve center who made the game-tying shot in the waning seconds of the first overtime, struggled to express just what he was feeling after the game.
"You're at a point where you're beyond tired," said the 6-11, 275-pounder as he held a bag of ice to his left elbow. "You're just playing on heart. Most people probably won't understand this, but you can reach a point where fatigue doesn't matter."
His teammates say what each left on the court Saturday is what March Madness and playing for Gonzaga is all about. And, before leaving the court, Fox turned to a couple of the Wildcats and left them with a few departing words.
"You'd better win the whole tournament," he said, "because I'm not losing to anybody but the national champion."
Bruce Feldman is a staff writer at ESPN Magazine.