It Had Zigs and Zags--and Zing With a double-overtime, rim-out humdinger last March, Arizona and Gonzaga reminded us--in a tough season--how magnetic their sport can be

Dec. 29, 2003
Dec. 29, 2003

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Dec. 29, 2003

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Year In Review

It Had Zigs and Zags--and Zing With a double-overtime, rim-out humdinger last March, Arizona and Gonzaga reminded us--in a tough season--how magnetic their sport can be

They showed it again the other night on ESPN Classic. And it
sucked them in. Again. In Manhattan Beach, Calif., Luke Walton
collapsed on his sofa after a long practice, scrolled through
the channels and hit pay dirt in time for the second half. In
Spokane, Richard Fox was ordering a sandwich at Jack and Dan's,
the tavern owned by John Stockton's father, Jack, just as the
first overtime flashed onto the screen. It hardly mattered that
Walton and Fox had devoured the game a combined 16 times
already, or that each play has been burned into each man's
cortex, a nonerasable brain-wave DVD, for life. Ask yourself:
Do guys ever click away from Top Gun--even when they're about
to see Goose hit the canopy for the 89th time?

This is an article from the Dec. 29, 2003 issue Original Layout

"Dude," Walton, now a Los Angeles Lakers forward, told a friend,
"I've gotta watch this."

"Every day I think about that game," says Fox, a senior center at
Gonzaga, who still chokes up--nine months later--just talking
about it. "I'd never cried because of basketball before. That was
the first time."

Eleven years ago SI laid out the three essential criteria for a
great college basketball game. One, it must be significant, like
the 1979 Magic-versus-Bird national championship game or Notre
Dame's regular-season win that ended UCLA's 88-game streak in
1974. Two, the game must be superbly played: Think Duke's 104-103
East Regional triumph over Kentucky in 1992, in which the Blue
Devils' Christian Laettner unspooled 20 shots (10 field goals and
10 free throws) and missed not one. Three, it must be larded with
drama, preferably with a little-known figure--Villanova's Harold
Jensen, North Carolina State's Lorenzo Charles, Georgetown's Fred
Brown--playing a central role.

Let's be clear. When Gonzaga and Arizona met in a second-round
NCAA tournament game last March 22 in Salt Lake City's Jon M.
Huntsman Center (the site where Bird and Magic birthed modern-day
basketball), the result was not the greatest game in college
hoops history. It had neither the lyrical perfection of Duke and
Kentucky's 1992 classic nor the tectonic plate crashing of North
Carolina's triple-overtime win over Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain
in the 1957 title game. But it was the greatest game of 2003, and
it came at a time when college basketball, staggered by a skein
of ethics scandals--and, soon after, the tragic murder of
Baylor's Patrick Dennehy--may have needed it most.

Import? Here was ninth-seeded Gonzaga, everyone's second-favorite
tournament team, facing down top seed Arizona, neutral court,
winner take all. Excellence? Blake Stepp, the Bulldogs'
circus-shooting point guard, poured in 16 points in less than
seven minutes down the stretch, while Arizona forward Walton
showed how to take over a game with passing, dishing out nine
assists. Drama? The underdog jacked up three buzzer-beaters with
a chance to win or tie, one of which bottomed out and two of
which came painfully, tantalizingly close.

In the end the epic reminded us why college basketball, even
without its megastars of the past, remains infinitely more
compelling than the pro game. Ask the participants to recall
their emotions today, and the word both sides invariably use is
fun. And when Gonzaga forward Ronny Turiaf fouled out late in the
second half, as Gonzaga's bench prayed and Arizona's linked arms,
he started crying on the court. Try getting that out of Rasheed

For our purposes the game begins midway through the second half,
with Arizona leading 56-52 and 10:36 left on the clock. CBS's Dan
Rather had just given an update on the shock-and-awe campaign in
Iraq, and Dick Enberg was managing the awkward transition back to
basketball. "Stepp: six points in the game, 2-for-10 shooting,"
he said. "Gonzaga needs more from their star." An unassuming juco
transfer, guard Tony Skinner, had kept the Zags in the game with
15 first-half points, but now Stepp--like the male lead in a
certain Jerry Bruckheimer '80s film--shakes off his doldrums and
engages. As if on Enberg's cue, he pops his first three-pointer
of the game. Then comes a two, and another three, and then a
preposterous trey while being fouled and falling flat on his

"Stepp was killing us," says Walton, the most complete college
player in years, who matched him in his own way during the final
minutes: an assist, a steal, two big rebounds, a layup and three
straight free throws. Arizona was leading 74-71 when the ball
landed in Skinner's hands outside the arc with 2:46 to go.

It's easy to forget that despite Gonzaga's five straight NCAA
tournament bids and three Sweet 16 berths, its achievements
border on the miraculous for a small school from the modest West
Coast Conference. Skinner, now a senior, freely admits that his
biggest thrill upon arriving in Salt Lake was seeing Duke play in
person for the first time. Don't confuse admiration with fear,
however, for no player on the court that day had more cojones
than Skinner. Making like Jensen, the long-range revelation of
Villanova's '85 champions, he sank his open three-pointer to knot
the score at 74, the first time the Zags hadn't trailed since
early in the second half. Yet the most important of Skinner's
career-high 25 points would come in the dying seconds of
regulation. With Gonzaga down 78-76, Stepp let fly with a
three-pointer. When it missed, Skinner corralled the rebound and,
in one whippet-quick motion, lofted a follow shot. It smacked the
backboard once, rolled around three fourths of the rim, kissed
the glass again and--inches beyond Fox's outstretched hand,
moments after the red light had flashed and the buzzer had


Make that two overtimes. The images come back in a rush. In the
first OT: Fox's wide-open layup that put Gonzaga in front 89-87
with 15 seconds left; Walton's bullish, double-clutch turnaround
in the lane to tie it back up ("There was no way I wasn't going
to score," he says); Stepp's heart-stopping half-court heave that
hit the front rim at the buzzer. In the second OT: Wildcats guard
Salim Stoudamire's five consecutive points that gave Arizona a
96-95 advantage and set the stage for one last memorable flurry.

Late at night in his Spokane apartment Fox still wonders if he
should have taken the eight-foot turnaround instead of passing to
Skinner, still wonders how Skinner--who'd hit five threes--missed
his wide-open 20-footer, still wonders how Stepp scrambled for
the rebound and managed to free himself for an unguarded leaning
five-footer, launched with 1.8 seconds remaining. But not an easy
five-footer. Not at all. "It's almost like an instinct to realize
that you have time left," says Stepp, now a senior, "but I didn't
know how much. It was a tough shot, especially leaning into it
and rushing it like I was. Maybe I shouldn't have used the

Freeze it. Right there. Stepp's shot has fallen harmlessly off
the rim--too strong--and now we're witnessing a fascinating
scene: Walton, motionless, gasping in the thin air, is sprawled
on the floor, as if he's been shot. Five feet away Gonzaga
forward Cory Violette lies flat on his back, right next to Fox,
who has keeled over too. Who just won? Who just lost? For one
fleeting moment you can't tell. And maybe, in these rarest of
memorable games, that's entirely the point.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH IN LINE FOR TAKEOFF Stepp (second from right) watched Arizona's Channing Frye (45) go up, then grabbed center stage.