It all seemed so familiar. Gonzaga, a high seed, blows a double digit lead in the final minutes of an NCAA tournament game, and leaves its fans and players laid out in disbelief.
The Zags, who once carved out their tourney identity with a dramatic last-second runner over Florida in the 1999 Sweet Sixteen, has struggled to regain those late heroics in the Big Dance. Instead, Zags fans have had to struggle through a string of heartbreaking losses in March.
In the 2003 tournament, the eighth seeded Zags squared off against the top overall seed in the tournament, Arizona. Gonzaga gave the Wildcats all that they could handle, forcing overtime when a Tony Skinner putback received a fortuitous bounce. From there the Zags missed several opportunities to put Arizona away. The Zags led by two points with 14 seconds left, but conceded a tying basket to send the game to a second overtime. In the second overtime, Gonzaga had two shots to win the game in the closing seconds, but a Skinner three pointer was off the mark, while a wide open Blake Stepp missed the put back off the backboard, sealing the 'Zona win.
The Zags entered the 2004 tournament as a two-seed, carrying a record that had only two losses, coming against the top two teams in the country: Saint Joe's and Stanford. After a predictable beating of Valparaiso in the first round, Mark Few's squad found themselves down early to Nevada and were never able to get back into the game, losing by 19.
Two years later the Zags were a three seed, and found themselves matched up with legendary coach Bob Knight and the Texas Tech Red Raiders in the second round of the 2005 tournament. The Zags led by as many as 13 in the second half, but that lead slowly eroded, and after a Ronald Ross three-pointer gave Tech a 68-67 lead the Red Raiders held on to win the game.
However, none of those defeats were as crushing and miserable as the regional semi-final loss to UCLA in the 2006 tournament. The Zags came into the tournament as a three seed, and were led by one of the nation's top players Adam Morrison. The Sweet Sixteen matchup between the Bruins and Bulldogs was billed by many as a game that would establish the best college basketball team on the west coast.
The Zags seemed poised to take that mantle when they dominated the Bruins in the first half, going up by as many as 17. UCLA battled back in the second half, but Gonzaga still seemed in control with as little as three minutes left, when they still maintained a 9 point lead. From that point on Gonzaga would not score another bucket, and UCLA netted the last 11 points of the game to knock off the Zags on their way to a national championship game appearance.
The lasting memory of that game has also been the lasting memory of the program for several years: all-american Adam Morrison lying on the Oakland court dejected and in tears. Many Zags fans can still recall the heartbreaking screams of Gus Johnson, who has found his way into the middle of the majority of the memorable Zags games this decade.
That loss has seemed to linger for the program. The 2006-2007 season got off to a promising start, which included an early season win over the Zags upcoming opponent North Carolina, a game in which Gonzaga big man Josh Heytvelt dominated Tyler Hansbrough. However, that season was later derailed by the suspension of Heytvelt, a loss that sent the Bulldogs reeling. In fact, had it not been for a late season run, and a West Coast Conference tournament title, the Zags likely would not have made the 2007 dance. Though they did get in as a 10 seed, Gonzaga was listless in a first round loss to Indiana.
Last year's Zags team reminded many of the teams that made three consecutive sweet sixteen appearances between 1999 and 2001. Though never the top 25 team they had been in recent years, the '07 Zags resembled those dangerous underdog teams that always managed to pull a few upsets and bust a few brackets. However, the Zags got extremely unlucky when they drew 10th seeded Davidson in Raleigh, just miles from the Wildcats home court. The Bulldogs put up a valiant fight behind the shooting of Steven Gray, but in the end couldn't contain Davidson and Stephen Curry, who would go on to knockoff Georgetown and Wisconsin on their way to an improbable elite eight appearance.
All of this, combined with a less than inspiring opening round win over Akron, was enough to make even the most confident Gonzaga fan nervous when Western Kentucky started to chip away at a seven point Zags lead in the last two minutes. The Hilltoppers, who had shot so well from beyond the arc all day, were poised to win the game in the waning seconds when A.J. Slaughter pulled up for the three and though they couldn't take the lead, Steffphon Pettigrew's tip-in with 7.9 seconds did the next worst thing, tie the game. A game that the Zags had in hand just moments before seemed destined to become an overtime loss, and another chapter in the Zags recent tourney heartbreak.
But then a funny thing happened.
With four of their five best players on the court - Micah Downs, Jeremy Pargo, Matt Boulding, Austin Daye - the Zags fate lay in the hands of freshmen Demetri Goodson. Goodson, unknown to the college basketball world before last night, had performed well all season and established himself as the successor to the graduating Pargo, but had never been in such a high pressure situation.
In a shot reminiscent of the 2003 Blake Stepp potential game-winner that bounced off the backboard and then the rim, sealing the Zags fate against Arizona, Goodson banked home the game-winner, sending the Zags onto the sweet sixteen.
The Zags may very well be blown out by the tourney's odds-on favorite North Carolina this Friday night in Memphis, but for the first time since the iconic "runner" in the 1999 tournament that beat Florida and led to Gus Johnson's famous call that "the slipper still fits", Zags fans have memorable tournament moment that does not end in heartbreak.
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