In 1999, Mark Few became head coach at Gonzaga, a basketball school in the sense that they were a school with a basketball team. The small private university in Spokane was an average school in below-average conferences (the Big Sky until 1979 and the WCC since), finishing around .500 for much of the 1970s and 1980s and barely sniffing postseason play. In nine out of 10 seasons from 1981-92, the team didn't finish higher than fourth in the eight-team conference. Forget the NCAAs, the team didn't even make the NIT for almost 60 years. A 1995 win in the WCC tournament gave the Zags their first tournament berth but it felt no different than when Portland won the WCC and made its modern tournament debut a year later. Random teams win conference tournaments.
It was, of course, the springboard. Four years later they made appearance No. 2 in the tourney and went to the Elite Eight as a 10-seed. That got coach Dan Monson a job at Minnesota after just two years in Spokane and assistant Mark Few filled his spot on the bench. The Zags haven't missed the tournament since.
At first, they were the lovable Cinderella. Few's teams made the Sweet 16 as double-digit seeds in his first two seasons. Then, a March drought. The Bulldogs didn't make it out of the first weekend in 10 of the next 12 seasons, including four years in which they entered the tournament as a top-three seed. Those losses began fueling a new narrative of a good basketball team that beat up on its easy conference and couldn't close in March. Gonzaga was proof that mid-majors were overrated. If they were in the ACC, the contrarian would argue, they'd be Georgia Tech.
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The 2006 season, when Gonzaga finished 29-4, was simultaneously the team's highest and lowest point. Led by All-American Adam Morrison, the Zags lost to UCLA in a late-night Sweet 16 game that still ranks as one of the best in tournament history and ended with Morrison sitting on the court, dazed and in tears. Another March failure?
When the Zags finally got a deserved No. 1 seed in 2013, they were ousted in the second round by a Wichita State team that eventually made the Final Four. It was a broken record. Mark Few had the most tournament wins of any coach without a Final Four berth. The school produced NBA lottery picks, NCAA classics, big-time early-season wins over national powers - all of which proved Gonzaga belonged. But even though the sustained greatness of a mid-major is unprecedented in the sport, the Zags couldn't enter the club unless they started winning in March.
But all bad results must come to an end and since the start of the 2014 season, the Zags are 99-12. They made the Elite Eight in 2015, the Sweet 16 in 2016 and then, last weekend, finally reached the Final Four they'd been chasing for 18 years. On Saturday night, they held off a furious South Carolina rally to advance to the national championship. Suddenly the old Final Four goal seems so trivial. Now they're one game away from a new one.
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Another journey has lasted 37 games.
Gonzaga started the year 29-0, with wins over power-conference teams in Florida, Arizona and Iowa St. and two over their only worthy conference adversary - a St. Mary's team that spent much of the year inside the top 25. Then, in the season finale, Gonzaga suffered a loss to a mediocre BYU team, ending the run at perfection. Being the final undefeated team in the country, as the Zags were, isn't as much of a predictor of future results as you might think. Only three times since 1979 has the last undefeated team won it all. Maybe it wasn't such a bad thing to lose?
There was another question: Was Gonzaga too good to win the national title? Since Dec. 4, the Bulldogs had won every game by double-digits, with the exception of a nine-point WCC semifinal win over Santa Clara. How close was that one? The Zags' win probability never dipped below 95%. There were wins by 29, 30, 35, 37, 47 and 58. Even the wins against the big boys weren't much of a game in the final 10 minutes. Could all that domination hurt? Teams need to be battle-tested come March. Winning 96-38 might help prepare for a No. 1 vs. No. 16 game, but what does it mean in a regional final? Could Gonzaga close out a game if needed? The only time they had to battle late was against BYU and the Cougars worked them over in the final two minutes - not exactly a good sign for a team unsure of its ability to win games late.
How would the Zags react when, as was inevitable, they were set in one of those classic NCAA tournament games that comes down to a couple free throws, a few inches on a rebound, keeping the handle on a near-turnover and keeping your head about you. Even the greatest athletes have moments of panic, so imagine what a group of 20-year-olds without much close-game experience trying to erase two decades of tournament disappointment would feel when things got tight?
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Gonzaga held on to beat Northwestern but were bailed out by an officiating error and a temper tantrum by coach Chris Collins. Few's team avoided having to prove anything. The first test came in the Elite Eight against West Virginia, a team that took a three-point lead with 1:48 left but never scored again. Zags' star Nigel Williams-Goss drilled a go-ahead three with 58 seconds remaining and the Bulldogs held on. They'd proved themselves, the same way Kentucky had three years earlier in a regional final they played under similar circumstances - an undefeated team with questions about whether they could hang tough. But the Wildcats' collapse would come, albeit one game later. They blew a lead and lost to Wisconsin in the national semifinal after being outscored 15-4 in the final seven minutes.
It looked as if Gonzaga would suffer the game fate on Saturday. After cruising for the first 30 minutes of the game, taking advantage of the matchups that had looked so favorable on paper and building a 14-point lead, the Bulldogs allowed South Carolina, hardly an offensive juggernaut, to go on a stunning 16-0 run over 3:30 and take a lead. Any comeback of that magnitude is a surprise but this one felt different. Gonzaga was cruising. South Carolina had no chance. And then - bam - the Gamecocks punched 'em in the jaw. As certain as you'd been that the Zags were going to cruise to a double-digit victory, you were just as certain that they were going to fold after giving a lead to a team on life support.
Gonzaga barely wobbled. Twenty-one seconds after losing the lead they'd had all game, Gonzaga took it back with an ice-water three by Zach Collins. After two South Carolina misses, the Bulldogs scored on their next offensive possession and the one after that. Though Frank Martin's team had three opportunities to tie the game in the final minute, the Gonzaga defense held.
They might not win the national championship but it's not going to be because they can't take the heat.
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Another journey took just 9.2 seconds.
Holding that three-point lead with 12.7 seconds remaining, South Carolina inbounded the ball with a chance for the equalizer. The Gamecocks burned some clock looking for the right shot and then, with 3.5 seconds left, Gonzaga used the oft-discussed but little-used strategy: intentionally fouling
Tournament hero Sindarius Thornwell followed his script - making the first, missing the second - but Gonzaga got the rebound, made their free throws and closed out the game. The "foul when up three" strategy has its pros and cons but it seems like much of the resistance comes from coaches who'd rather let the game play out naturally rather than concocting situations that can backfire. Going to overtime because you gave up a three pointer? It happens. Going to overtime because you put a team on the line? You've manufactured your own demise. This time, Few made the right call (and it would have been right even if the Gamecocks had tied or won). With 3.5 seconds left, South Carolina had backed itself into a corner and practically begged Gonzaga to commit the foul. When they did, it was over.
Now Gonzaga prepares for a national championship, trying to become the first team to win its title-game debut since Connecticut in 1999. Those Huskies, coincidentally, made their first Final Four by beating that Gonzaga team that started all this.