Sorry for the cliche to start, but a lot can change over the course of a year.
Last year, I showed up several hours before the Gonzaga game only to discover a senior had blown off his classes in order to get the best seats for his last chance to see an upset of the Zags and their fans.
This year, I came to the Student Entrance of the Chiles Center after switching my laundry, at 6:30 I thought I would be a little further back in line because the students would be up for this game, right?
As I rounded the corner, or whatever the equivalent is for a round building, I encountered... two sophomores in folding chairs. I asked how long they had been there; they composed some story that proved they had only been there at most a hour or two. They were new to waiting in line for events from their question of whether they would be allowed to bring their folding chairs into the arena (they weren't.)
Students, like at many schools below the Red Line, only got excited for games against schools in the region during on-conference and Gonzaga and Saint Mary's during conference play. By the time the doors opened, the line stretched down campus and might have been close to 100 deep. This year, the three of us remained alone for most of the time before the doors opened. Pilot Riot made their appearance in line and had clearly not understood when the doors opened.
By tipoff, the student section filled up, but like Seth has mentioned, this crowd, outside a few more people fueled by Blue Ribbon products or other products that might qualify as half servings of grains, looked like they were forced to attend a mandatory lecture.
Another reason I am attached to this matchup in particular is last year's matchup, the first game Mauro Potestio had not attended since 1949, which I covered in last year's test run.
As a junior, Portland had graduated seniors that had helped earn the #25 ranking and with a few bounces different, would have had the two seed in Vegas, and with one fewer day of rest, the rest of the country might not have met Omar Samhan and Saint Mary's College. Five Seniors moved the team through a rocky season, but were able to step up for games against Gonzaga and St. Mary's.
As a senior, Portland had graduated those seniors from that team and had only two players with more than a year of experience on the bluff.
Last year, Portland got out to a 12-4 start, led by as much as 10 and held a 34-28 lead at the half. Could they finally do it and knock off Gonzaga at home for the first time since the seniors were in second grade? The Pilot dance team -- which is Title R compliant -- started performing to "Club Can't Handle Me" by Flo Rida and David Guetta. All of a sudden, I noticed a colleague in student support (who normally sports a painted "P" on his chest at games) replicating their routine in the student section. Others joined him. Then, many in the stands ran onto the court! Our halftime entertainment was a flashmob!
This time around, Portland hung with Gonzaga and led by four, 29-25 at the break, but in the wake of the recent games, the excitement was tempered. Perhaps turnovers would be the undoing or the shots would not fall. No flashmob would entertain the crowd, due to schedule conflicts. The Dance Team was no longer Title-R compliant and the student section was more interested in talking amongst themselves and getting onto the ESPN cameras than an upset.
Gonzaga opened the second half with an 8-0 run to get a four point lead, Tanner Riley and Derrick Rogers tried to keep it close, but the run came. Portland was an athletic team, but every time the lead was cut to 8, Gonzaga would hit a pair of free throws or attack in the paint.
Our Game is often like a class, you could enjoy it coming out of the cold, but with research and further exposure to the topic, the concepts become deeper and connections can be seen. To truly enjoy Our Game, one has to do more than just show up on "test days." If one attends as much as possible, conflicts permitted, sometimes family and school comes up, you can better understand the successes and struggles of following a young team. Plus you earn the gift of perspective if circumstances allow your team to make a run in the Conference Tournament.
Last year, Jared Stohl, a senior and all-time leading superhooper for the Pilots, was performing his slow walk back to his campus apartment with his head down. I walked over to him and pointed out that the team had managed to overcome mistakes and rally from a ten-point deficit. That was a task that had not been accomplished in either of their last two games up in Spokane.The quiet, humble and then-despondent superhooper managed to crack a smile.
This year, there were fewer bright spots to find, like Ryan Nicholas getting a double double with 13 and 10 rebounds and barely "losing" the turnover battle 16-15. It is hard to win when your opponent hits 25-31 free throws. As Portland transitions away from the superhoop and toward a big man inside team, I hope the students are willing to put forth the same effort the team does to prepare for an opponent that most years, will break your toys and walk away like they won a tournament.
Regardless, some people are proud to be a Pilot, even if the students don't think it's a rivalry.
GONZAGA 74, at PORTLAND 62 01/26/2012
GONZAGA 17-3 (7-1) -- E. Harris 5-10 7-8 17; K. Pangos 4-13 4-5 12; G. Bell Jr. 5-9 7-8 18; R. Sacre 5-5 6-7 16; M. Carter 2-2 0-1 4; G. Landry Edi 1-2 1-2 3; S. Dower 2-8 0-0 4; D. Stockton 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 24-51 25-31 74. PORTLAND 5-16 (2-6) -- R. Nicholas 6-14 0-0 13; N. Mitrovic 3-8 0-0 8; K. Bailey 2-7 1-2 6; T. van der Mars 3-4 0-0 6; D. Rodgers 3-5 3-4 9; T. Riley 3-8 0-0 7; T. Douglas 4-8 2-4 11; D. Carr 1-2 0-0 2; D. Cason 0-2 0-0 0; J. Bailey 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-58 6-10 62.
Three-point goals: GONZ 1-11 (S. Dower 0-1; E. Harris 0-1; D. Stockton 0-2; G. Bell Jr. 1-1; K. Pangos 0-6), PORT 6-21 (N. Mitrovic 2-7; T. Riley 1-5; T. Douglas 1-3; R. Nicholas 1-3; K. Bailey 1-2; D. Cason 0-1); Rebounds: GONZ 30 (E. Harris 10), PORT 24 (R. Nicholas 10); Assists: GONZ 13 (M. Carter 3), PORT 12 (T. Douglas 4); Total Fouls -- GONZ 14, PORT 26; Fouled Out: GONZ-None; PORT-None.