Gonzaga University plays its first-ever Final Four game, and advances to the NCAA men's college basketball championship game by beating South Carolina, on April 1, 2017.

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 5/03/2017
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20352

On April 1, 2017, Gonzaga University plays in its first-ever Final Four game and advances to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) men's college basketball championship game by beating South Carolina. The Gonzaga Bulldogs, who have lost only one game over the season, have survived several close calls in the earlier rounds of the tournament, and this game, too, is a tense affair. The Bulldogs are ahead 65-51 in the second half, but a furious run by South Carolina puts Gonzaga behind 67-65 with seven minutes remaining. The Bulldogs regain their poise and go on to win, 77-73, prompting delirious victory celebrations in Spokane, Gonzaga's hometown, and in Glendale, Arizona, where the game is played. The victory puts Gonzaga in the national championship game -- a feat accomplished by only one other Washington school, Seattle University in 1958. Two days later, Gonzaga nearly becomes the first Washington school to win the NCAA basketball championship, but is edged out late by North Carolina, 71-65.

An "Overnight Sensation" 19 Years in the Making

In previous years, Spokane's Gonzaga University had come tantalizingly close to a berth in the Final Four, the NCAA Tournament's semifinal round. Gonzaga was a perennial national basketball power and had qualified for the tournament 19 straight times since 1999. Yet an Elite Eight (quarterfinals) appearance had been the school's best result. A Final Four appearance was one of coach Mark Few's (b. 1962) few remaining career goals.

From the start of the 2016-2017 season, it appeared that Few might have the players to finally accomplish this goal. Star center Przemek Karnowski (b. 1993) had been joined by another 7-foot-plus player, freshman Zach Collins (b. 1997), fulfilling one of the prerequisites of any Final Four aspirant -- dominant big men in the middle. Gonzaga had also acquired Nigel Williams-Goss (b. 1994), a transfer from the University of Washington, fulfilling another crucial prerequisite -- a smart, unflappable point guard capable of managing a game and scoring.

Gonzaga had already made a number of key decisions over the years that put the team on track to compete with much-bigger state universities. Columnist John Blanchette of The Spokesman-Review listed five of those: promoting Few to head coach in 1999; building the 6,000-seat McCarthey Athletic Center in 2004, acquiring regional television exposure, adding top-ranked nonconference teams to the schedule to counteract what was seen as weak West Coast Conference competition, and recruiting players from outside the region and in many cases outside the country. Blanchette wrote that "[i]t took only 19 years" for the program "to become an overnight sensation"("Refresher Course").

Exceeding High Expectations

The 2016-2017 team exceeded its high expectations from the beginning. The Bulldogs played tough teams early, including Arizona, Tennessee, Florida, and Iowa State, and beat all of them. In fact, they headed into West Coast Conference play undefeated. The Spokesman-Review was now routinely devoting an entire two-page spread to every Gonzaga game -- and sometimes an entire special section. The editor wrote that he wanted to rival the coverage given to "powerhouses like Kentucky and North Carolina" (Curley).

Then Gonzaga breezed through much of the conference season, with only occasional close games. By the middle of the season, the Bulldogs were the only Division 1 team that remained undefeated, at 16-0. When they reached 23-0, they were ranked as the No. 1 team in the country, a ranking they held heading into their last regular-season game. They had already clinched the regular-season conference championship and the top seed in their conference tournament, so in some ways it was a meaningless game for Gonzaga. Yet it was clearly not meaningless for unranked Brigham Young University, which blasted Gonzaga on its home court and won 79-71. The loss knocked Gonzaga's national ranking down to No. 4.

However, Gonzaga then went on to sweep the conference tournament and clinch a spot in the NCAA tournament (dubbed "March Madness") for the 19th year in a row. Gonzaga's 32-1 record was the best in the nation and earned it a No. 1 seed in the tournament. After surviving a few scares in the early rounds, Gonzaga reached the Elite Eight and a chance to finally reach its Final Four goal.

On March 25, 2017, in San Jose, Gonzaga faced Xavier in a game with historic implications. No Washington school had made it to the men's basketball Final Four since Seattle University in 1958 (the University of Washington's women's team made a surprising run to the women's Final Four in 2016). Before Seattle U, the only teams in the state to earn a spot in the Final Four were the University of Washington in 1953 and Washington State University in 1941. If history weighed heavily on the Bulldogs, the players didn't show it. They took the suspense out of the game early, steamrolling to a 20-point lead over Xavier midway through the second half. The final minutes of the game resembled an extended victory celebration as the substitutes came off the bench to make a final score of 83-59.

The Final Four

The players were greeted back on the Spokane campus by a crowd of hundreds, chanting the words "history" and "Final Four" (Horton). Few said the victory "made his heart warm to like 350 degrees Celsius or something" ("These Tears Were Earned"). Although making the Final Four was Few's longtime goal, he and the team immediately turned their attention to the next goal, winning the Final Four game against South Carolina and making it into the national championship game.

On April Fool's Day, Gonzaga accomplished that goal in front of a crowd of 77,612 at the University of Phoenix Stadium, the second-largest in Final Four history. The outside world finally acknowledged what Zag Nation (as the fan base is called) had already loudly asserted: the team deserved its high rankings and stellar record. The New York Times said that "the Gonzaga Bulldogs looked as blue-blooded as any member of college basketball's aristocracy on Saturday night" (Tracy).

Only one test was left, the national championship game against perennial power North Carolina on April 3, 2017. National media attention turned to Spokane and this relatively small (7,527 enrollment) Jesuit university. The sports network ESPN sent camera crews to Spokane to acquaint viewers with Gonzaga's hometown. The Spokesman-Review gave a tongue-in-cheek assist to national sportscasters by publishing a guide to pronouncing the name of the school: the "zag" in Gonzaga is pronounced as in "zig-zag," not like "zog."

In the national championship game, the Gonzaga Bulldogs proved, for most of the game, that they were indeed of championship caliber. Gonzaga held a 65-63 lead against North Carolina with less than two minutes to play. However, North Carolina scored the game's final eight points to win the NCAA title, 71-65.

There would be no championship rally when the team arrived back in Spokane -- but there was a huge thank-you rally on the Gonzaga campus on April 5. Few took to the podium and cracked, "This crowd is way bigger than Trump's inauguration!" (Ogden). On a more serious note, he said, "Thanks for making us feel like we truly are America's team" (Ogden).


Sources:

John Blanchette, "Here's a Refresher Course on How Zags Got to Where They Are Today," The Spokesman-Review, March 27, 2017, p. B-1; Jim Meehan, "Bulldogs Return to Form, Make Final Four in Rout," The Spokesman-Review, March 26, 2017, p. B-7; Jim Meehan, "Zags Give Huge Performance on Game's Biggest Stage," The Spokesman-Review, April 2, 2017, p. B-7; Jim Meehan, "Tar Heels Outscrap Zags," The Spokesman-Review, April 4, 2017, p. B-5; John Blanchette, "These Tears Were Earned," The Spokesman-Review, March 26, 2017, p. B-1; Whitney Ogden, "One Last Time Zags Fans Rally to Show Their Pride in Gonzaga's Greatest Team Ever," The Spokesman-Review, April 6, 2017, p. A-1; Rob Curley, "The Spokesman's New Editor Can't Wait to Be This Newspaper's Old Editor," The Spokesman-Review, December 11, 2016, p. B-1; Josh Horton, "Gonzaga Basketball Fans Greet Team on Campus After Historic Elite Eight Victory," The Spokesman-Review, March 26, 2017 (http://www.spokesman.com/stories/2017/mar/26/gonzaga-basketball-fans-greet-team-on-campus-after/#/0); Marc Tracy, "A Final Test for Gonzaga," The New York Times, April 3, 2017, p. D-1.


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