Twenty years ago here this week, a freshman from British Columbia who grew up on soccer played a major role in one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history.
Santa Clara point guard Steve Nash calmly made six consecutive free throws down the stretch to help the Broncos to a 64-61 victory over fifth-ranked Arizona on March 19, 1993. It was only the second time a No. 15 seed had beaten a No. 2, and it was a shocker.
No one knew it at the time, but Nash, from Victoria, B.C., also was playing pioneer. The maple leaf stands for more than hockey these days.
By one count, there are 28 Canadians playing in the NCAA tournament this year. The most prominent, Gonzaga’s Kelly Olynyk and Kevin Pangos, are back where it all started, in Salt Lake City, as the Bulldogs look to back up their No. 1 national ranking and No. 1 seed in the West.
Olynyk, a mobile 7-footer, is Gonzaga’s best player and one of the best players in the country, averaging 17.5 points and 7.2 rebounds. He faces a decision – to stay in school or go to the NBA – that is just as foreign to Canadians as his countrymen were to top-level basketball in years past.
Seeing Nash fashion a Hall of Fame-caliber NBA career has helped drive the next generation, Pangos said.
“The bar is set a lot higher. Guys aren’t satisfied with making the NCAA team anymore. Now the goal is to be in the NBA (and) the top NCAA teams,” said Pangos, a sophomore from Newmarket, Ontario, who is averaging 11.5 points and 3.2 assists a game.
Seven Canadians are in the West subregional in Salt Lake City, including Harvard guard Laurent Rivard, from Saint-Bruno, Quebec, who is averaging 10.4 points a game, third on the Crimson in scoring.
Additionally UNLV freshman Anthony Bennett (Brampton, Ontario) was the Mountain West Freshman of the Year after averaging 16.1 points a game, and his Rebels are seeded sixth in the East subregional in San Jose, Calif. And on non-tournament teams, Stanford’s Dwight Powell (Toronto) was on the All-Pac-12 team after averaging almost a double-double, and Arizona State center Jordan Bachynski (Calgary) set the Pac-12 record with 119 blocked shots this season.
Olynyk, Pangos and most of the others attended a national camp last summer.
“Me and Kelly came away from that and we were almost rejuvenated with excitement going back to school with how much we learned. We came back with a whole new mindset,” Pangos said.
Added Olynyk: “Basketball is really on the rise. Guys are focusing on trying to get to the next level, which is huge. I think that’s where Canada is headed and where it nears to go.”