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John Blanchette: Game that started Gonzaga’s 20-year NCAA Tournament run was part fact, part fiction

Twenty years is a long time to get something right.

Think about it. They only give United States presidents eight – at the most – and sometimes they make hash of it in the first 100 days.

But for 20 consecutive years now, a Gonzaga basketball team has been in the NCAA tournament, and nearly as often as not, played into the second weekend. Considering the only schools with longer active streaks are the sport’s Bezoses and Buffets – Kansas, Duke, Michigan – it’s an amazing streak.

Maybe more amazing: before launching this run, the Zags had been to the tournament exactly once in their previous 37 years of Division I membership.

They certainly got the hang of it quickly.

But getting there is barely half of it. There is always winning to do. There was never going to be a streak of 20 straight NCAA appearances, each ending in a first-round loss. The Zags weren’t going to establish the kind of aura that gets them back to the Big Dance every year without success early on.

Which is why the most pivotal game in school history probably remains that very first win over Minnesota 20 years ago – the Final Four 18 years later notwithstanding.

A refresher for those of you who’ve only been on the bandwagon for a decade: seeded 10th in the West Region after blistering though the West Coast Conference tournament, the Zags faced No. 7 Minnesota in KeyArena in Seattle, less than 48 hours after a St. Paul Pioneer Press story laid bare allegations of long-established academic fraud within the basketball program. Four Gophers, including two starters, ended up watching from the bench – the immediate result of a long investigation that would cost coach Clem Haskins his job and land the program on NCAA probation. Gonzaga raced to a 45-26 halftime lead, then spent the second half up against the ropes as the Gophers cut the lead to two before the Zags prevailed 75-63.

Two days later, Stanford fell to the Zags. The next week, Florida. It was a phenomenon – and on and on and on.

Ever since, the start of it has been a greenhouse for both gospel and myth. Let’s try to separate those.

Putting the Zags in Seattle was aiding and abetting – if not a downright NCAA conspiracy.

Beyond the 1,000 or so tickets the school sold, Zags fans gobbled up whatever was left on the open market. With the regional attachment, the underdog role and the fact that it would be a few years before anyone was suffering Gonzaga fatigue, only the small Minnesota sliver in the crowd of 14,971 wasn’t in full roar for the Bulldogs. They fueled the first-half surge and helped the Zags weather the comeback by the Gophers, who found themselves playing a road game as the higher seed. Asked how he thought GU’s win was playing back home, guard Richie Frahm marveled, “I think they’re all here.” Gospel.

The Zags won only because Minnesota was in disarray.

The Gophers were at an obvious disadvantage, having to replace two starters with barely one practice – including their No. 2 scorer and leading rebounder. And they looked pretty lost for the first 20 minutes. But as then-Gonzaga coach Dan Monson told his team, “They’re still going to put five Big Ten players on the floor.” They still had forward Quincy Lewis and his 23-points-per-game scoring. They had 7-foot center Joel Przybilla, who would pull 13 years in the NBA. Freshman walk-on Dusty Rychart, who torched GU for 23 points and 17 rebounds, wasn’t a one-hit wonder – he would average 13 points a game over the next three seasons. The Gophers were certainly more comfortable in the spotlight than the Zags in the second half. But if the Bulldogs were good enough to take down Stanford and Florida – and push eventual champions UConn to the limit – they were good enough to deal with the Gophers at full strength. Myth.

Richie Frahm’s final 3 is the most overlooked big shot in GU history.

Casey Calvary had the highlight tip-in that will never die. Jordan Mathews sent the Zags to the Final Four. Zach Norvell Jr. saved them from first-round ignominy last year. But if Frahm doesn’t drain his nervy 3 with 1:22 to play, the Gophers have a chance to tie or take the lead. Gospel.

Frahm’s appearance at the foul line two minutes earlier was totally legit.

GU’s lead was five with 3:19 left before Frahm nailed a pair of free throws. Except it was teammate Mike Nilson who’d been fouled on a rebound at the other end of the floor. Frahm wasn’t even in the frame of the TV picture when Rychart was scaling Nilson’s back. But he’d missed two foul shots earlier and Frahm, who went 7-of-7 on the day, later claimed that “I might have been fouled, too.” Myth, and some larceny, too.

Quentin Hall got in Quincy Lewis’ head.

That is to say, he broke the lock, plopped in the recliner, snatched the TV remote and ordered the Minnesota star to fetch him some snacks. Mark Few likened Hall to Henery Hawk in the Foghorn Leghorn cartoons, and he and Nilson hounded Lewis into 3-of-19 shooting in the Zags’ box-and-one defense. Lewis would later play in the NBA for Utah, and it’s far-fetched to think that he ever heard about his miserable day against Gonzaga from his Jazz teammate, John Stockton. Gospel.

There’s no Zagmania if Gonzaga hadn’t won.

Well, not an instant Elite Eight, obviously. And maybe Minnesota doesn’t come calling for Monson after Haskins’ firing, delaying – if not detouring – Few’s ascent to head coach. That could easily have changed the arc of Gonzaga’s rise, if not it’s destination. But except for Hall and Jeremy Eaton, the Zags’ entire player rotation returned for the 2000 season. And the Bulldogs went to the Sweet 16 each of the next two years. Dan Dickau still transfers in from Washington. Blake Stepp still arrives. Tommy Lloyd still signs on to procure talent overseas – he made his first contact with GU through Monson back in 1998. So maybe it just gets pushed back a year, and this is the season the Zags make their 20th straight NCAA tournament instead.

No less amazing. And that’s Gospel.

Follow along with the Zags

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