Fans pass a bulldog statue, the team’s mascot, on their way to the entrance at the McCarthey Athletic Center on the Gonzaga University campus in 2014. (AP Photo/Young Kwak, file)

Fans pass a bulldog statue, the team’s mascot, on their way to the entrance at the McCarthey Athletic Center on the Gonzaga University campus in 2014. (AP Photo/Young Kwak, file)

Former Zags reflect on the Bulldogs’ historic tournament run

Herald writers Joseph Thompson and Ian Davis-Leonard talk about the anxiety of rooting for the Zags.

Editor’s note: Herald reporters Joseph Thompson and Ian Davis-Leonard graduated from Everett High School before heading off to Gonzaga University in Spokane. As the nation watches the Bulldogs, the newsroom watches Thompson and Davis-Leonard try to function on gameday during the national tournament. They bring a grassroots perspective of what it is like to be invested alums of an enormously successful program that routinely defeats universities with enrollments five and six times its size while always conditioned to brace for disappointment.

For fans of a small school in Eastern Washington, the last few weekends of March are reserved for one thing: basketball.

It’s been 22 years since Gonzaga men’s basketball missed the NCAA Tournament. Over the more than two decades of trips to the big dance, the unknown Cinderella from a school many people couldn’t pronounce (Gone – ZAG – uh) has developed into a powerhouse on the national stage.

On Monday night, the Zags will make their second appearance on the sport’s biggest stage, the national title game. This year, against the formidable No. 1-seed Baylor Bears.

Gonzaga reached the final after defeating UCLA 93-90 on a last second long-range jumper in overtime Saturday night.

After so many appearances in the NCAA tournament, the high-stress environment should be like an old hat to the Gonzaga faithful.

But the spoils of victory don’t eliminate the crushing pain of defeat.

Despite all the success, anxiety often owns gameday for dedicated Zags fans.

Joey Thompson

Joey Thompson

Joseph Thompson, 2019 Gonzaga graduate

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Gonzaga basketball for nearly two decades.

My family has a long history with the school and the city of Spokane, which I continued by spending four years at Gonzaga to study journalism, among other things.

However, despite being a fan as far back as the Blake Stepp days, some have called me a Gonzaga hater.

For most of my life, the Zags cruised through each season to 20-plus wins, finished with a top-25 ranking, and landed a high seed in the NCAA tournament.

And almost every time, they’d let big games slip away to inferior teams in the opening weekends of March Madness.

It was Steph Curry dropping 40 points to bounce the Zags in the first round in 2008, Wichita State upsetting the 1-seeded Bulldogs in 2013 or the UCLA Bruins ending the game on a 11-0 run to beat Adam Morrison’s team by two points in 2006.

In those years, every Gonzaga fan became accustomed to the feeling of dread deep in your stomach as the team tried to cling to a single-digit lead.

You just knew the inevitable series of turnovers, bad shots and missed timeouts was coming.

I understand it’s a little silly to complain, given the program’s success. But the anxiety that went into watching these losses year after year made it difficult to have faith.

But this season’s team is different.

They’re winning games they’d historically lose.

When they filled their non-conference schedule with top-25 teams, they beat them all.

In the West Coast Conference championship game, the BYU Cougars scored 53 points in a single half — the best 20 minutes of basketball the state of Utah has ever seen. The Zags won, anyway.

During the second round of the tournament, Oklahoma’s Austin Reeves seemed poised to be the next streaky shooter to upset the Bulldogs. He dropped 27 points, but it wasn’t enough.

Not only are the Zags undefeated, but watching Gonzaga basketball has never been this fun.

They’re holding on to leads, scoring on inbounds plays and avoiding late-game turnovers.

Through 31 games, I have yet to feel the typical dread.

So, this year, I’m more confident about their chances than just about everyone I know.

Ian Davis-Leonard

Ian Davis-Leonard

Ian Davis Leonard, 2020 Gonzaga graduate

I’ve been on both sides of the Gonzaga bandwagon.

Growing up in Western Washington, I was drawn to the purple and gold. As a fourth-grader I fell in love with a baby-faced assassin by the name of Stephen Curry and my mom’s alma mater, Davidson College.

From my view, that team in Spokane was a spunky, but overrated bunch that fell off come March.

Or at least that’s what I thought until it came time to pursue higher education. It’s a funny thing how paying tuition can so quickly swing your fandom.

In a matter of months, I bought all the way into the Bulldogs.

Journalism brought me closer to the action. I covered men’s games in the McCarthey Athletic Center, at the conference tournament in Las Vegas and would’ve followed the team on its 2020 tournament run had the season not been canceled by COVID-19.

On media row I’ve earned glares for committing the faux pas of cheering while on the job.

It’s nerve-wracking (and a bit embarrassing) caring so much about something you have no control over. Knowing in advance that your mood for the foreseeable future is based on 40 minutes I have no involvement in.

Even before tip-off the anxiety begins to boil as I pace in front of the TV. A history of upsets to inferior opponents gives credence to fans’ fears of losing.

When the games are close, every missed free throw and errant pass becomes agonizing.

Family and friends know I’m vulnerable during big games.

When the semifinal game got tight in the Zags’ first visit to the Final Four in 2017, all it took was a simple message from my mom to get the best of me.

With 12 seconds remaining in a game GU would win by four points, my devious mother texted the words you least want to see, “Call asap. 911.”

For a few moments I panicked, telling her I’d call right after the game. She didn’t wait long to remind me of the date. “April fools,” she said.

The anguish isn’t just about wins and losses. In March, the thrill of madness also means lasting moments of sadness.

Images of Adam Morrison ugly crying against UCLA in 2006 or coach Mark Few consoling a distraught Nigel Williams-Goss after the 2017 title loss are easy to recall.

For fan favorites like senior sharpshooter Corey Kispert from Snohomish County, when the final buzzer sounds it will be his last time as a Bulldog.

The same is likely true for freshman phenom Jalen Suggs who has a multi-million dollar NBA contract waiting for him in a matter of months. And the tall Texan Drew Timme, whose memorable mustache and fancy footwork may also be bound for the pros.

At a school where basketball is paramount, the pinnacle of the sport has been elusive.

Despite scores of dominant players, elite coaches and rowdy fans, each season has ended with the bitter, curdled taste of a loss. As the years go by, the Gonzaga haters get louder.

On Monday night, this collection of Zags — poised to head off to bigger and better things — can stem decades of anxiety, squash troves of doubters and leave the program to relish in sweet, sweet victory.

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