No. 3 Gonzaga took down No. 1 Duke on Wednesday in the Maui Invitational Championship Game. From start to finish, it was an electric matchup, and it was clearly the game of the season so far. But where does it rank in terms of Gonzaga’s biggest wins of all time?
Coach K. A bunch of lottery picks. The program’s first win over a No. 1 ranked team. This one has a lot going for it, and it’s up there near the top for sure. But this is Gonzaga that we’re talking about here. This program has seen its fair share of big wins over the years.
Let’s talk about the five biggest wins in Gonzaga history. Spoiler alert: the Duke game is in there somewhere.
5. Gonzaga Bulldogs 75, Saint Mary’s Gaels 63
March 7, 2011
Ah yes, the best rivalry out West. No list of biggest wins in Gonzaga history can leave off the team’s arch-rival. Right?
Well, this game actually has nothing to do with Saint Mary’s.
The Gaels were unranked, as were the Zags. Neither team had a particularly great season, by the standards we’ve grown accustomed to in the years since. And that’s precisely why this win made the cut.
Gonzaga opened the season at No. 12 in the AP Poll, but fell all the way out of the top-25 within two weeks. They spent the rest of the season unranked. Entering the WCC Tournament the Zags had a 22-9 record. Their résumé was awful. They lost all but one of their five games against ranked teams and lost an additional five to unranked competition.
The Zags weren’t going to get an at-large. For Gonzaga’s streak of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances to grow past 12, the Zags needed to win the WCC Tournament and claim the league’s automatic bid. It’s now at 20.
That streak is as big a part of Gonzaga lore as anything. — probably somewhere between John Stockton’s short-shorts and Adam Morrison’s mustache. Needless to say, Gonzaga isn’t Gonzaga if you can’t say, “this team does not miss the NCAA Tournament.”
4. Gonzaga 86, Virginia Cavaliers 85
March 16, 2001
When did Gonzaga make the transformation from sneaky darlings-of-the-dance into annual participant/powerhouse? I’d say it happened in the first round of the 2001 NCAA Tournament.
Dan Monson was the head coach when the Zags ran to the Elite Eight in 1999. Mark Few took over the next year and led his team to the Sweet Sixteen, but he did so with Monson’s guys.
After losing five seniors from the squad that had made back-to-back NCAA Tournaments, Few and the Zags just kept rolling. They made it back to the tournament and danced all the way to the Sweet Sixteen for the third straight season.
Gonzaga beat 13-seed Indiana State in the Round of 32. But that win wouldn’t have happened without this win over a 5-seed from the ACC.
In March of 2001, Mark Few showed America that Gonzaga wasn’t just some flash in the pan.
3. Gonzaga 89, Duke Blue Devils 87
Nov. 21, 2018
No matter the situation, no matter the outcome, Gonzaga versus Duke is going to be a big game. But this situation was about as big as it gets, and the outcome was as well.
Gonzaga was ranked No. 3 in the AP Poll, as it had been since the preseason. It was the Zags’ highest ever preseason ranking. Duke was the talk of the town — even in defeat people want to blather on about the Blue Devils — and ranked No. 1 in the country. And these two powerhouse programs were fighting for the championship of the Maui Invitational.
This was No. 1 Duke, at 5 p.m. Eastern — which actually matters since most of Gonzaga’s games tip off well after the Twitter trolls (and an unfortunately large segment of the national media) go to bed — on ESPN. Gonzaga controlled the game for 40 minutes. It was close, and it was entertaining, but it was all Gonzaga.
Gonzaga showed America that it is an elite college basketball program. It’s right there with Duke, and this year it’s a step ahead, even though it’s made up of college basketball players and not 18 year olds who can’t yet declare for the NBA Draft.
There will be no more “Gonzaga’s overrated” talk. No more “Gonzaga doesn’t play anybody.” Not now, and not ever.
Gonzaga has spent the past 20-plus years playing anyone, anywhere. There were series against John Calipari’s Memphis teams and Lorenzo Romar’s UW Huskies, when both programs were rolling. There were countless successful preseason tournaments, dating back to the trip to Alaska in 1997 that saw Gonzaga upset a top-5 Clemson team. There were five College Gameday appearances over the years. But never had the Zags taken down a team as reviled and respected as the Duke Blue Devils. And never had they taken down a team ranked No. 1 in the country.
But they have now. And something tells me — 20+ years of watching Gonzaga grow from backwater to blue blood is what tells me, actually — that this first won’t be the last.
2. Gonzaga 83, Xavier Musketeers 59
March 25, 2017
Posing with his teammates and the West Region trophy after the game, point guard Nigel Williams-Goss jokingly asked, “where that monkey at?” It’s the final clip from the video below.
To Williams-Goss, Mark Few and all the people from Spokane, there never was a monkey on Gonzaga’s back. But, everyone else sure seemed to think there was. Gonzaga won plenty of games every year, were highly touted and highly ranked every year and made the NCAA Tournament every year. Despite common perception, they actually didn’t flame out early in March, but they didn’t make deep runs either.
Until this team played this game, and top-seeded Gonzaga blew past 11-seed Xavier in the Elite Eight. Suddenly, nobody could find that monkey.
Sure, Gonzaga went on to beat South Carolina in Phoenix before playing a tight, competitive game against North Carolina in the National Championship. But this was the biggest win of the 2017 NCAA Tournament for the Zags. It gave the program its first Final Four appearance.
Until Gonzaga makes it past that final hurdle and brings home a national title, this next win will mark the last big step in Gonzaga history.
1. Gonzaga 73, Florida Gators 72
March 18, 1999
On March 11, 1999, Gonzaga was a 25-6 team, with a name nobody could pronounce, from a city nobody could pronounce, that was making its second-ever NCAA Tournament appearance only because it won a conference nobody cared about. And it was preparing to face a Minnesota team from the Big Ten.
The Zags won, 75-63. A 10 over 7 upset is cute, but they happen and America moves on.
Two days later, Gonzaga moved on, too. This time against the 2-seed Stanford Cardinal, 82-74. “Tiny” Gonzaga was to 1999 what FGCU’s “Dunk City” was to 2012: Cinderella.
In the Zags’ next game, a Sweet Sixteen tilt with Florida, the Cinderella story nearly came to an end. But, with 4.4 seconds until midnight, Casey Calvary put back a Quentin Hall miss and the clock stopped forever. You’ve seen the clip a thousand times. You can probably recite the call word for word.
20 years later the program, the university, the facilities and the players are bigger than ever, but that slipper still fits.