I was there in 2005, when Saint Mary's finally beat Gonzaga to end what seemed like a lifetime of futility against the Zags. It was the Gaels' first win over a ranked team in years. The only proper way to celebrate was to rush the court. Then we went home and watched SportsCenter highlights of us rushing the court.
Another win against the Zags came in 2007, after I had graduated. The students rushed the court without realizing there was still time left in the game. WIth one-tenth of a second on the clock, the refs called a technical foul on the Gaels' bench, and the Zags' best free-throw shooter went to the line. If the margin of victory had been any closer, it may have been the first time in history a student section cost its team a win. But hey, they were still getting used to this beating Gonzaga thing. By 2008, they had figured it out. When the final buzzer sounded with the Gaels on top, everyone, finally, stayed in their seats. Been there, done that.
In the run-up to the latest Saint Mary's-Gonzaga tilt, in Moraga on Jan. 12, the local media made sure to point out the Gaels had beaten the Zags in four of the last five years. After a decade of Zag dominance, maybe this was finally becoming a real rivalry. But Saint Mary's had dropped the last three home games to Gonzaga, meaning no one in the student section on this night had ever witnessed their team take down the West Coast Conference kings in person.
Decades ago, the Sacramento Northern Railroad used to whisk passengers from Oakland right to the footstep of the Saint Mary's campus. Today, a walking path sits along the old rail route, right next to the winding, two-lane road that connects Saint Mary's to the outside world.
My wife, also a Saint Mary's alum, and I took the two-hour journey from our jobs in San Francisco by bus, train and car. We parked in the dirt along the road to avoid the traffic nightmares that have become a post-game tradition and walked to the gym. Despite a few cosmetic upgrades, like a new court and better lights, McKeon Pavilion still looks like it was built for nearby Campolindo High School rather than a Division I basketball program. Two sides are lined, mostly, with blue bleachers. Behind the basket are stark white walls. It seats 3,500 -- plus whoever the fire marshal ignores.
On this night, he's ignored a ton. The students, whipped up into a frenzy by adrenaline and other, less-than-natural stimulants have been packed into the stands for more than an hour. Dozens of Gonzaga fans trickle in, oozing confidence. In the crowd I spot a few local dignitaries I recognize from my brief time as a newspaper reporter covering Moraga. Press row is filled with illuminated Apple logos. In the past few years, this game has become an Important Bay Area Sports Moment.
There are still some signs of growing pains, a basketball program still finding its way as a whole. The band isn't there, having been shut down by athletics because it couldn't attract enough members. The student section has no visible leader, and chants and cheers spring up mostly by consensus. No one follows the cheerleaders, maybe because there are only 10 of them, but most likely because they are, as far as I can tell, Title R non-compliant.
The game itself provides some drama in its early stages. Both teams come out playing fast and physical, and the two sides trade buckets for much of the first half. It looks like its shaping up to be a repeat of last year's games, where a miracle shot by Mickey McConnell gave the Gaels a win in Spokane and the Zags eked out an overtime victory in Moraga.
But Saint Mary's begins to pull away, and the drama subsides. A superhoop from Clint Steindl, a lanky forward from Australia, prompts cheers of "Aussie Aussie Aussie! Oi Oi Oi" from the crowd and keys a 9-0 run to put the Gaels ahead. They would not relinquish the lead. It's eight points at halftime. Four minutes into the second half, another Steindl superhoop makes it a nine points. Shortly afterward, the awesomely-named Stephen Holt drops in a bucket to make it a 13-point lead. And suddenly it's not about whether Saint Mary's will win, but by how much.
Gonzaga's big man, Robert Sacre, snags a rebound and slams it down for a dunx, drawing cheers from the sizable Bulldog contingent, but it's the last gasp of a team on its last legs. Whenever the Zags start to narrow the gap, Saint Mary's is able to answer, usually with a timely superhoop from their Australian sharp-shooter, Matthew Dellavedova. The Gaels leading scorer, Rob Jones, is held scoreless until the final minutes, but contributes 11 rebounds and 8 assists. Redshirt freshman Brad Waldow finishes with 17 points; someone in the crowd wildly waves a sign reading "There's Waldow!"
The final margin is 21. Saint Mary's 83, Gonzaga 62. It's the most lopsided conference loss in Mark Few's 13 years in Spokane. But this isn't that big of an upset. Gonzaga was ranked 21 in the polls, Saint Mary's 31. Victories against the Zags have become common. As the final buzzer sounds, I think to myself, "I hope they don't rush the court."
But of course they do. Maybe they needed the catharsis. Maybe they needed to see before they believed their team was that good. Maybe it's somehow a sign of respect for the Gonzaga squad. They're still trying to get used to this.
at SAINT MARY'S 83, GONZAGA 62 01/12/2012
GONZAGA 13-3 (3-1) -- K. Pangos 4-9 1-2 12; E. Harris 8-14 1-2 17; G. Bell Jr. 2-7 0-1 6; S. Dower 1-4 6-6 8; R. Sacre 1-7 2-4 4; D. Stockton 1-3 1-2 4; M. Carter 2-5 0-0 5; M. Hart 0-0 0-0 0; G. Landry Edi 2-4 0-1 4; R. Spangler 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 22-54 11-18 62. SAINT MARY'S 16-2 (5-0) -- M. Dellavedova 10-16 1-2 26; S. Holt 5-8 2-2 13; R. Jones 1-6 0-0 2; C. Steindl 2-7 0-0 6; B. Waldow 6-8 5-7 17; M. Young 4-5 4-6 12; J. Page 0-5 2-2 2; K. Walker II 1-2 0-0 2; B. Levesque 0-0 0-0 0; T. Williams 1-1 0-0 3; E. Petrulis 0-1 0-0 0; K. Rowley 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 30-59 14-19 83.
Three-point goals: GONZ 7-15 (S. Dower 0-1; E. Harris 0-1; D. Stockton 1-2; M. Carter 1-2; G. Bell Jr. 2-3; K. Pangos 3-6), SMC 9-25 (R. Jones 0-3; K. Walker 0-1; C. Steindl 2-6; J. Page 0-2; M. Dellavedova 5-10; T. Williams 1-1; S. Holt 1-2); Rebounds: GONZ 30 (E. Harris 11), SMC 36 (R. Jones 11); Assists: GONZ 16 (K. Pangos 4), SMC 21 (R. Jones 8); Total Fouls -- GONZ 16, SMC 19; Fouled Out: GONZ-None; SMC-None.