After 18 years, Gonzaga—and one longtime follower—can finally celebrate a Final Four berth

1:23 | College Basketball
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Thursday March 30th, 2017

I was an 11-year-old basketball addict during Gonzaga’s 1999 Cinderella run through the NCAA tournament. As the daughter of a longtime college coach (dad) and former Division I official (mom), I had my favorite teams and favorite players, and, like most people, knew nothing about that small Jesuit school from eastern Washington. But then my dad pulled out an atlas—one of his favorite pastimes—and pointed out that Spokane was so close we could actually drive there. They were one of us, he said, a Northwest resident in a region that didn’t get much basketball respect. This wasn’t Oregon or Oregon State, or even Washington or Washington State, but it was a Northwest school and as such, we needed to pay attention. Maybe they could bring our area a little pride.

It got better, and more personal, when I studied the roster. Back then the Zags were run by a tough, cerebral point guard who oozed competitiveness. Matt Santangelo was a local kid, having graduated from Portland’s Central Catholic High. As a sixth grader I knew I was set to go to school, and eventually play varsity basketball, at Sandy High, a school that was in the same league as Central Catholic (shout out to the old Mt. Hood Conference). Understandably, it blew my 11-year-old mind to know that I had, in some long-distance way, a connection with the new college basketball darling. That March, I remember many newspaper stories and conversations with my dad in which the educated adults explained why what Gonzaga was doing that year was so special, and might never be replicated again. My connection to the Cinderella run felt fleeting.

GU lost in the Elite 8 that year, but I continued to track the Zags after that. Maybe they could do something in the future. There were other locals who played big roles in other NCAA tournament runs for other teams—I still cherish my Freddie Jones’ autograph, which I acquired before the Ducks’ Elite 8 trip in 2002—but no one had captured my attention like Gonzaga.

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Gonzaga’s evolution from trivia answer (where did NBA All-Star John Stockton attend college?) to mid major powerhouse has been astounding to witness. For the last 18 seasons the Zags have stocked their roster with a mix of homegrown Northwestern kids and foreign bigs. As a Northwest resident with an appreciation for post moves, and as someone who is routinely up for 11 p.m. EST tip times, I’ve watched more Gonzaga games the last five years than probably every other Division I program combined. And every year I’d wonder, Is this the season it can finally get to the biggest part of the Big Dance? Is this the year the pieces fall into place for a Final Four run? Every other mid-major seemed to have its turn, sometimes at the expense of GU. (Zag fans are still waiting for an explanation on how Wichita State hit so many threes that day.) Would Gonzaga get one too? And if it did, could people finally pronounce the name correctly? Pro tip: They’re not called the “Zogs.” Use that as your guide.

They’ve upgraded their facilities and travel to road games on a private plane. They are, unsurprisingly, the hottest ticket in town; in Spokane, it’s common to hear locals ask each other “Got tickets?” but the reality is, so few do. The McCarthy Athletic Center seats only 6,000.

Donald Miralle/Getty Images

In the last few years, Gonzaga’s become a landing spot for transfers who fell hard for the glitz and glamour of Power Five schools only to realize what they really wanted to do was win, and contribute to said winning. Last year they got their first-ever commit from a McDonald’s All-American in freshman Zach Collins. They’ve won WCC title after WCC title—they’re at 20 and counting overall, with 17 under longtime coach Mark Few—and been to 19 consecutive NCAA tournaments. They’ve won at least one game in the NCAA tournament nine years in a row. Winning is hard even when you’ve got high school All-Americans up and down your bench. But do you know how much harder it is to win when you’re not a traditional power?  

Through it all, the Zags have remained remarkably down to the earth. Spokane is a big (OK, good-sized) city with a small town feel, full of some of the friendliest people you can imagine. Sometimes Few & Co. are comically laid back. In 2013, when Gonzaga finally ascended to the top of the Associated Press poll for the first time in program history, Few was unavailable for comment. He was busy fly-fishing.

And yet, the haters still came out, talking all that nonsense about Gonzaga being in a weak conference (clearly those people do not ever watch Saint Mary’s play) and making snide comments about GU never getting to the Final Four (that they should have gone only once, according to seeds, doesn’t seem to matter). I’ve been convinced since December that this could finally be the Zags’ year, a belief that was reinforced after a gritty win over West “Press” Virginia in the Sweet 16.

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Fifteen years after that first Cinderella run, I was sitting in an office in downtown Spokane in summer 2014 waiting to do an interview for SI's annual "Where Are They Now?" project, when Santangelo walked through the door. I recognized him instantly. (I also looked behind him to see if his former teammate and the object of my sixth, seventh and eighth grade affection, Richie Frahm was coming too, but alas.) Santangelo now runs Hoopfest, the world’s largest three-on-three basketball tournament that’s played annually every summer in the streets of downtown Spokane. Though Santangelo was raised in Portland he took the Hoopfest job because Spokane “feels like home.”

He’s not the only former Zag who feels that way. Many players graduate, go play professionally and then return to Spokane. You can see them in the stands at every home game, or on the Hoopfest courts each summer. And Saturday, when Gonzaga and Few finally qualified for their first Final Four, a lot of those former players were in the stands—or in Santangelo’s case, on the sideline with a radio headset on—in tears.

Turns out, the Zags did lots after ’99. The 11-year-old in me still can’t believe it.

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