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Zags left spinning after coming full circle

3/22/2004

SEATTLE -- Symmetry can be a cruel thing.

This whole Gonzaga phenomenon began here in Seattle, way back in 1999, when the No. 10 seeded Zags beat No. 7 Minnesota and No. 2 Stanford to advance to the Sweet 16. The Zags advanced to the Elite Eight in '99 by giving Florida its annual March embarrassment, and the Zags emerged as America's sweethearts, the consummate underdog the next four dances.

Five years later, after exploiting that Elite Eight run by building a remote Jesuit school into an unlikely national power, the Zags returned to Seattle. This time they came in as a decisive favorite with a 28-2 record, No. 2 seed and a roster stocked with talent. Saturday, they left with their heads hanging after 10th-seeded Nevada demolished the Zags 91-72.

Gonzaga got outplayed, outhustled and outcoached, and after years of forging a reputation as a giant killer, the Zags came full circle. They became the giant who got killed.

"That's the new thing," Gonzaga center Richard Fox said. "The feeling after losing isn't, 'Hey, we made a great run.' We didn't expect to make a little run in the tournament and see what happens. We expected to win."

So did Nevada, a likable team of swashbuckling, trash-talking, no-names. And that's what made the second-round game so surreal.

It was the Gonzaga players walking off the floor with their heads drooped, eyes empty and shoulders slumped. It was Nevada that played like the underdog, loose, wired and valuing every loose ball like a precious gem.

And after the game it was the media horde surrounding the Nevada players, burrowing for details about how this WAC school in Reno could take the NCAA Tournament spotlight hostage.

Another team, at Gonzaga's expense, was giving the golly-gee-whiz quotes, becoming quaint and endearing.

"I can't believe it," Nevada guard Kirk Snyder said. "All the people out there want to listen to what I have to say. It's funny."

As the seconds wound down and the Nevada players started mugging for CBS, Zags senior guard Blake Stepp ripped a piece of tape off his wrist, threw it into the scorer's table in frustration and breezed through the postgame handshake.

Stepp has emerged as the face of Gonzaga's five-man senior class that will be remembered as the best in school history. Stepp came in right after Gonzaga's Elite Eight run in 1999 and helped hoist the program to unprecedented heights in the following four seasons. Not only did the school reach No. 2 in the national rankings this season, but Stepp and his classmates also built the metaphoric foundation for the school's new arena, due to open next season.

Stepp is the son of a coach. His was dribbling by age 1, and his first word was "ball." The Zags judge their point guards by wins, and Stepp's career record is 107-23. Gonzaga alum John Stockton even pulled Few aside earlier this year and told him that he thought Stepp was the best Zag guard ever.

But in his final game as a Zag, Stepp was awful. Hounded all game by Nevada's Garry Hill-Thomas and Marcelus Kemp, Stepp shot 3-of-18 from the field, including 1-of-12 from 3-point range.

For all he'd done, all he'd help build, Stepp couldn't help but feel like the floor caved out under him this afternoon.

"We'll take some time off and look back and realize we did have a good season," Stepp said. "Right now it definitely doesn't feel very good."

Unfortunately for Stepp, and anyone who watched this game, one thing that will infinitely nag at them is the way the game was officiated -- especially in the first half, when the team of John Clougherty, Curtis Shaw and Kerry Sitton called 23 fouls. These officials failed to realize people don't tune into the tournament to watch free throws.

It's obvious that Nevada outplayed Gonzaga wire to wire, but the officials handcuffed the Zags, especially when Clougherty whistled Ronny Turiaf for his third foul on a phantom charge with 11:08 remaining in the first half. Turiaf played just 15 minutes all game, never really getting in any flow.

"Officials shouldn't make that big a difference" Stepp said "It took the wind out of us."

To their credit, the Zags didn't point the blame on the officials, because a lot of blame for the loss should be pointed inward. Few stashed his only consistent offensive players, Adam Morrison (14 points) and Sean Mallon (9 points), on the bench down the stretch. The Zags also hit just 3 of 22 shots from 3-point range and coaxed Nevada into just eight turnovers. Gonzaga was beaten to every loose ball and failed to exploit a distinct home court advantage.

And, if there was a knock on this Gonzaga team all year it was how the Zags defended. All season long, the Zags played man-to-man as their base defense but could also flash an effective 2-3 match-up zone if necessary. Every week, Zags coach Mark Few eats lunch with former Michigan State head coach Jud Heathcote, who grills the staff on the team's defensive weaknesses. (Heathcote even charts road games and tells the staff the percentage of times the players got their hands up on opponents shots).

But Saturday, all that mentoring looked for naught. The Zags opened up in their 2-3 zone to combat Nevada's quickness and stayed in it too long. The Nevada players' eyes lit up.

"When a team runs zone, you obviously know that they can't guard you," Snyder said.

Nevada, which had five players score in double figures, attacked the hoop with abandon and went to the line 29 times.

"Coach told us they didn't want to play on the defensive end," said Nevada center Nick Fazekas, who is so skinny he could be twirled on a spoon and dipped in pesto sauce.

This loss will linger much longer than last year's double-overtime thriller to Arizona or the first-round exit to Wyoming two years ago. "It feels as if someone took your life away," Morrison said. But, what shouldn't be overlooked is just how amazing it is that Gonzaga has built itself to the point where it receives a No. 2 seed. Gonzaga will be back in the NCAA Tournament next year. Maybe not seeded as high, but it won't fade into obscurity like Cleveland State, Loyola Marymount or Miami of Ohio.

The Zags have evolved into a national player in every possible facet. They play in high-profile nonconference games and are featured on both local and national television more than Seinfeld reruns. When it comes to stockpiling talents like Morrison, Mallon and Turiaf, Few competes with Stanford and UCLA on the left coast, and the likes of Florida out East.

"There's a lot of disappointment in here," Fox said. "That says a lot about this program. The mindset changed in this program and it's here to stay."

So, while one circle was completed in 2004, don't expect the Zags to drift away. There's a returning roster flush with talent and the base for a long, steady stream of NCAA seeds.

"I don't see us slowing down," Few said. "We will continue to keep doing what we have been doing. Today was just about Nevada."

As well as an emerging giant learning what it's like to fall from the top.

Pete Thamel is a freelance writer based in South Boston. He can be reached at vpthamel@yahoo.com.