Gonzaga and Turiaf Have Both Come a Long Way

March 17, 2004

AP Photos

AP Sports Writer

SEATTLE (AP) - Gonzaga forward Ronny Turiaf has come a long way from Martinique, the tiny island nation just north of Venezuela where he grew up.

The Zags have come a long way, too, from their days as the NCAA tournament's upset specialist. This year, they've got a No. 2 seed, what amounts to a homecourt in Seattle in the opening rounds and legitimate hopes of reaching the Final Four.

Gonzaga (27-2) faces No. 15 seeded Valparaiso (18-12) in Thursday's first round, shortly after No. 7 Michigan State (18-11) plays Western Athletic Conference champion Nevada (23-8), the 10th-seeded team. Both games are in the St. Louis Regional.

The other games in Seattle are from the Phoenix Regional, with No. 8 Alabama (17-12) against Missouri Valley regular season winner No. 9 Southern Illinois (25-4) and top-seeded Stanford (29-1) meeting Southland Conference champ No. 16 Texas-San Antonio (19-13).

Since the tournament expanded to 16 seeds per region in 1985, a No. 16 team never has beaten a No. 1, though UTSA guard Kurt Attaway optimistically pointed out it's bound to happen one day.

His coach took a harder stance.

"We're going to have to be a part of a miracle," UTSA coach Tim Carter said. "It's just that simple. They're bigger. They're stronger. They were once the No. 1 team in the nation. We're going to have to play a miracle ballgame."

Pac-10 player of the year Josh Childress smiled when asked about Carter's question, then spoke of guarding against overconfidence. Montgomery made a point of saying any team that makes the NCAA field is capable of beating another.

"Tim may have said that, but he doesn't really believe it," Montgomery said. "He's coming in here thinking he can win."

Stanford's last visit to Seattle didn't go too well for the Cardinal, which at the time was ranked No. 1. Washington pulled a 75-62 upset on March 6, the only loss in Stanford's otherwise perfect season.

"Having gotten a No. 1 seed and coming back to Seattle, we obviously hope to have a little more success than the last trip," Montgomery said.

Gonzaga is in the tournament for the sixth straight year, riding a 20-game winning streak with arguably the best team the Bulldogs have ever had.

They've got a senior point guard in two-time West Coast Conference player of the year Blake Stepp, the first to win the award two consecutive seasons since Santa Clara's Steve Nash in 1995-96.

They've got a talented frontcourt in 6-foot-8 center Cory Violette and Turiaf, the energetic 6-10 forward who was named MVP of the conference tournament after putting up 29 points and 14 rebounds in an 84-71 win over Saint Mary's in the final.

"They're a team that has a chance to do very well in this tournament. They don't give up very much in any area," said Montgomery, whose team is one of two - along with St. Joseph's - to beat the Bulldogs.

Turiaf is easy to spot. Look for the guy with the cornrowed hair, the muscular fellow doing jumping jacks during warmups and timeouts. Soon, he's streaking downcourt for a ferocious dunk.

"On the court, he flips a switch and turns into a wild and crazy guy," Stepp said. "We need him to be that way for us to be successful."

Anybody who struggled to properly pronounce Gonzaga (It's "zag" as in "zig-zag") might just as easily trip over Turiaf's first name. It's "ROW-knee," as unusual as the man who carries it.

Turiaf was born in Martinique, a former French colonial island in the Lesser Antilles. He speaks five languages: his native Creole, as well as English, French and Spanish, and he's taking Italian in school.

He's always quick to smile in interviews and he makes friends quickly with just about everybody he meets.

"He could be the mayor of Spokane," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "Everybody loves him on campus. Everybody loves him around town. It's because he's so personable. He reaches out to every secretary in every building."

Turiaf grew to 6-6 by age 14, when he was shipped to the French national athletic academy in Paris. One of his friends there was Tony Parker, the standout point guard who's now with the NBA's San Antonio Spurs.

"He's making so much improvement," Parker said when the Spurs played in Seattle last month. "He's very motivated and he really wants to make it to the NBA. I believe he really wants to go far, and he's a dominant inside player now."

Within a few years, Turiaf drew attention from college recruiters from the United States. He got a look from schools like North Carolina and Connecticut, but established programs shied away over concerns about his work ethic.

Things worked out great for Gonzaga.

"We found him through our network," Few said. "We put the word out that we were looking for a big kid. We heard some good things about him. At the time, there were some real heavy hitters involved."



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