Gonzaga finds its mojo just in time for March Madness
DENVER -- Gonzaga spent much of the season operating out of fear that it was in jeopardy of missing the month it has become most famous for.
March and Gonzaga have been partners for the past 12 years. But after the Bulldogs lost five of their first nine games this season, that beautiful marriage was at risk.
"It's not a birthright," coach Mark Few said. "This has been a great learning process for our players, our staff, our fans, people who follow the program. There's nothing guaranteed."
The Bulldogs buckled down and fought through two slumps. They won the West Coast Conference tournament, earning an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.
And they arrived here peaking at the right time, playing their best basketball of the year and some of the best basketball in the country.
That skill was on display Thursday night, when the 11th-seeded Bulldogs ousted No. 6 seed St. John's 86-71. Gonzaga was led by Marquise Carter with 24 points.
It was the third upset of the day at the Pepsi Center. As the final seconds ticked off on the long day of play, a fan held up a sign: "Pepsi Center = Upset Center."
But was the nightcap game really an upset? Is any Gonzaga victory really considered an upset anymore, since becoming a tournament regular?
"We certainly didn't consider ourselves an underdog in this game," Few said. "I mean, when the matchup popped up, we were excited to be able to play."
Afterward, St. John's coach Steve Lavin called Gonzaga "a Final Four-capable, national championship-potential team." Lavin is known for hyperbole, but his words didn't sound crazy: his Big East team was undressed by Gonzaga, and the Bulldogs size and skill is sure to give its next opponent, No. 3 BYU, a handful.
"Their front line is so dominant, they're going to be a handful for any opponent in any conference," said Lavin.
St. John's was handicapped without senior D.J. Kennedy, who tore his ACL in the Big East tournament. But Gonzaga's domination was so complete that one player wouldn't have made the difference. The loss was wrenching for the seniors, who put St. John's basketball back on the basketball radar.
"It was very emotional," Dwight Hardy said. "We know we won't get another chance to play in this atmosphere again."
Gonzaga has been playing in the atmosphere for years. Players come to Gonzaga now expecting to play in the NCAA tournament in March. But bad losses -- at Washington State and a three-game conference losing streak in January -- made March Madness seem out of reach.
"It was tough realizing that this team, who's put in a lot of time, really had some growth, wasn't potentially going to get this opportunity to play in one of the greatest sporting events out there," said senior Steven Gray. "A lot of our learning took place on the big stage."
Robert Sacre said the loss at Washington State was a turning point. Gray said he thought that falling behind Portland on the road and battling back was the moment that the team came together.
"Just to see the passion that the team had, just how we responded to that situation," Gray said. "I think that was when the team sort of took an identity and got our confidence going."
When Gonzaga beat St. Mary's in overtime in Moraga, Calif., to prevent the Gaels from clinching the WCC regular season, Few proudly said: "We win league championships and go to the NCAA tournament."
When he said that, Gonzaga wasn't a lock. But the Bulldogs were putting together a nine-game winning streak. They were beginning to peak.
Just at the right time.