Gonzaga Proves Last Year Was No Fluke
March 19, 2000
TUCSON, Ariz. - Don't call Gonzaga a sleeper anymore. The tiny school from the Northwest proved again it can play with the big boys of college basketball.
After pulling off yet another tournament upset, toppling second-seeded St. John's 82-76 Saturday night, the Bulldogs found no reason why they couldn't better last year's amazing run to the West Regional final.
"I think our team had to prove something because many people thought it was a fluke last year," said coach Mark Few, an assistant on the 1999 team that lost to eventual champion Connecticut in the regional final. "But we proved that we are among the top 20 or 25 teams in the country."
With Matt Santangelo's clutch shooting and heady ballhandling, Axel Dench's polished post moves, Casey Calvary's athleticism and Richie Frahm's explosiveness, Gonzaga's latest victim had no reason to disagree.
"I think they've got a really good chance of going to (the Final Four)," St. John's coach Mike Jarvis said. "There is a time and a place for everything and maybe this is theirs. It wasn't meant for us. Maybe it's meant for Gonzaga."
Last year Gonzaga was the tournament darlings, knocking off Minnesota, Stanford and Florida before putting a scare into Connecticut. The school that no one could pronounce is now famous for being more than just the alma maters of Bing Crosby and John Stockton.
"Obviously, we're building a nice tradition here," said Santangelo, who had 26 points and handled St. John's relentless, trapping defense. "But two years of tournament success isn't exactly a storied history. St. John's is one of the legendary programs in college basketball, so sure it's an upset.
"But we're a part of the beginning of something, and if we keep having tournament success, we'll get that type of respect. It's just of no concern to us now."
One sign of Gonzaga's success was the relatively reserved celebration at the end of the game. Santangelo pumped his fist toward the crowd, the players gathered at midcourt to congratulate each other and walked off knowing their job wasn't done.
Next up, Purdue, another big school from a major conference that stands in the way of Gonzaga this week in Albuquerque, N.M.
The 10th-seeded Bulldogs, who have knocked off a No. 7 and No. 2 seed for the second straight year try to repeat their run against another No. 6. But unlike last year, when Connecticut was waiting on the other side of the bracket, the West is wide open following Wisconsin's upset of No. 1 Arizona.
"When we found out before the game that Arizona had lost, St. John's became the team to beat in our region," Frahm said. "This is a special one. To be able to have an encore like this is special, no question."
Purdue, in the regional semifinals for the third straight year, presents a different challenge than St. John's. The Boilermakers are a bruising, physical team that likes to wear down its opposition.
With the high altitude in New Mexico, that could cause problems for Gonzaga.
"At this point the teams are pretty evenly matched so it will come down to who wants to win it the most," Santangelo said. "We will treat next week like a four-team tourney. It will be war Thursday and the best team will win."
Purdue, which lost its last two games before knocking off Dayton and Oklahoma, has never gotten much respect under coach Gene Keady. The focus in the Big Ten is often on the more flashy teams, but it is Keady's squads that always seem to be at or near the top at the end.
So, it will be no different in New Mexico when everyone talks about the darlings from Gonzaga.
"Why they don't want to write about Purdue? I couldn't care less," Keady said after the 66-62 win over Oklahoma on Saturday. "We just have to earn our way to keep proving that we deserve it."
By JOSH DUBOW
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