Classic From 2003 Still Ranks Among Tournament's Best

SAN DIEGO — Players crumpled to the floor, some from exhaustion and others from relief. Coaches exchanged embraces of mutual admiration, perhaps even disbelief. It had been a long time since anyone had seen a basketball game like this one, a battle played at the highest of levels, one that took everything out of two teams and still had the audacity to ask for more.

Top-seeded Arizona and ninth-seeded Gonzaga played well into the night, refusing to yield to the pressure, until GU guard Blake Stepp misfired on an 8-foot runner. It’s a shot he makes nine times out 10, and one that left the Wildcats with a 96-95 victory in double overtime in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Make no mistake, the Bulldogs did not falter on that night. They simply ran out of time. If not for the buzzer, the teams might have played until morning.

More than a decade after the spectacle of that 2003 showdown played out in Salt Lake City, it still ranks among the best in NCAA tournament history. Instant Classic. The greatest game I ever played in. That’s how the players described it.

“That was a game where the players were exhausted and helping each other up afterwards,” GU coach Mark Few said, “because they had so much respect for the battle that had just played out.”

Perhaps the Zags and Wildcats will grace March Madness with a sequel. The schools meet again Sunday in the third round of the NCAA tournament at San Diego’s Viejas Arena.

Cory Violette, part of that 2003 cast, will call Sunday’s game for the Gonzaga radio network. A junior at the time, Violette recorded six points, eight rebounds and four assists in 39 minutes of action.

“That moment when Blake took that shot is kind of frozen in time,” Violette said. “You stop and think about how, if it goes in, how many different things may have happened for both teams.”

Names like Andre Iguodala, Channing Frye, Luke Walton and Salim Stoudamire dotted the Arizona roster. Violette, Ronny Turiaf, Winston Brooks and Stepp, an All-American guard, led the Bulldogs.

“We were playing a team that was more talented and physically gifted,” Violette said, “but our special talent was that we could execute. We weren’t high flyers or the most gifted athletes, but at that time we could execute better than just about anybody.”

The Bulldogs needed a last-gasp effort to force overtime. Tony Skinner, who tallied a career-high 25 points, corralled an errant shot and put in the rebound at the regulation buzzer to knot the score at 78-all.

The teams then exchanged salvos in the first overtime until Richard Fox scored on an inbounds play with 14.5 seconds to play, giving the Bulldogs an 89-87 advantage. Arizona, though, responded with a Walton bucket to force another extra session.

Stoudamire scored five points in the second overtime, including a floater in the lane with 2:03 left, for the final margin. The lefty sharpshooter, who finished with 15 points, was one of five Wildcats in double figures.

The Zags had multiple chances to win it. Skinner missed a 3-pointer with 4 seconds to play and Stepp’s follow caromed off the glass. Stepp, one four Bulldogs in double figures, scored 19 of his 25 points after halftime.

“There is no greater competitor on the floor than Blake,” Violette said. “He felt that (loss) deeper than most. But he is very analytical about basketball and he probably remembers every play from that game and can point to a number of things that could have changed the outcome of that game.”

Brian Michaelson, now an assistant coach for Gonzaga, was a redshirt sophomore in 2003. An elbow infection forced him to miss the NCAA tournament, but his sideline seat provided him with one of the best perspectives for this tussle.

“That game was played at such a high level,” he said. “Guys were hitting big shot after big shot.”

Indeed, both squads shot around 45 percent from the field. The Zags and Wildcats both executed their offenses at such a crisp clip that neither team turned the ball over more than 10 times.

“We played about as good as we could,” Violette said. “We didn’t leave anything out on the floor and we had a shot to win the game. You can’t ask for more than that.”

Violette said the magic of the tournament is the reason that game turned into a classic. He also says Sunday’s game could produce similar results. The schools are again meeting in the round of 32. Arizona is again the top seed, while Gonzaga is a slightly overlooked eight seed.

“This game kind of has the same feeling and all the intrigue that game had,” Violette said. “The talent that Arizona has is very similar. Gonzaga’s lineup is quite a bit different, but this game has the same feeling as then.”

Basketball fans, regardless of their rooting interest, can only hope it’s half as good as the epic staged in 2003.


 

 

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