Ron Swords, EWU Athletics
I couldn't have been the only Inland Northwest basketball fan realizing that it had slipped past midnight on Saturday night and that March, and all its ups and downs, was here. And it didn't feel that good. Suddenly, it seemed, everything was not as it should be heading into the most important month of the year.
The Zags had been beaten on their home court for the first time by a conference foe in four seasons and a No. 1 seed looked like it had flown out the window. Earlier that day, Eastern Washington's chances to host the Big Sky Tournament and set up a Cinderella NCAA run got slimmer. The day, as it unfolded...
1:12 PM: Arrive at Reese Court in Cheney
Well, the parking lot of Reese Court, to be exact. We pop tall cans and stand in the mid-day sunshine, but shivering in a brisk Cheney wind as floods of fans make their way to the stadium. By a half-hour to tip-off, there are more cars in the lot than I've seen during my entire season on the bandwagon of the nation's most exciting team.
Things looked good. Tyler Harvey, the Nation's Leading Scorer
, was all healed up, as was Venky Jois and the rest of the Eagles band of hot-shooting foreigners. The Eagles were playing at home to what was going to be a huge crowd and they'd already knocked down Montana once.
2:00 PM: Senior Night
You forget how emotional these things can feel. Per tradition, the senior Eagles march out onto the court with their families to warm cheers from the crowd. Drew Brandon is described by the PA announcer as one of the "nation's most dynamic guards," a designation that seemed like hyperbole at first, but has been duly earned after further examination of his solid season. Parker Kelly, who came out of Gonzaga Prep in Spokane and followed coach Jim Hayford from Whitworth to Eastern, also gets a solid ovation.
2:45 PM: Half Time score, Montana 42, EWU 39
It's a back-and-forth, run-and-gun, shoot-it-from-wherever sort of first half for the Eagles, which is about what you can expect from the freewheeling team this season. But they're down by nine coming down to the end of the first half. The horde of Eastern fans (4,600-plus of them, the fourth largest crowd in school history) were starting to quiet down until Bogdan Bliznyuk breaks away for a thunderous dunk. Then Brandon hits a layup and Harvey was fouled on a three-pointer and hit the trio of free throws.
3:25 PM: EWU 52, Montana 49
Harvey has just gone completely bonkers with nine points in the span of about two-and-a-half minutes of game time. The dude is feeling it. Things are looking promising.
3:40 PM: EWU 69, Montana 66
Jois slams home an impressive pass into the paint and is fouled. He missed the free throw, but the next time down the court, Harvey is again fouled on a three pointer and again hits all three. There's 6:33 left in the half. This could happen. I hand my two-year old over to the wife as to not toss him onto the court come the next big play, which Eastern needs...but don't get.
3:55 pm: Montana 77, EWU 76
There's just under two minutes left to play and the Eagles have done this before. No problem, right? They just need to score and they got it right into the paint once, then twice. It's bouncing around the rim, but the damn thing won't succumb to gravity, it won't kiss the net, it won't let all these people enjoy their Saturday.
But Montana can't score either and it comes down to an inbound pass with 6.7 seconds left. The pass goes to Parker Kelly, who has time to move it around, but he shoots a three falling out of bounds and doesn't even draw iron. The air goes out of the building.
4:33 PM: Parking Lot
We're still sitting in the damn car to contemplate the last seconds of the contest and traffic isn't moving. We're just sitting there, in the purgatory of the defeated, weighing the possibilities of Eastern winning this week's two games (Idaho St. and Weber St.) and hoping for a loss from Sacramento State to give them a chance to bring the conference tournament to Cheney. But mostly we're thinking about that three point shot from the corner...
5:45 PM: Perry St. Brewing
The Gonzaga gear is heavy in the brewery as I sip an IPA and try to raise my spirits for the second big contest of the night. People are upbeat and know that it's Senior Night at the Kennel, too, and there's a lot of talk about Gary Bell and Kevin Pangos. I restrain myself from sharing the queasy feeling I have about this game against BYU, a team that can score the ball better than anybody else in the country.
7:18 PM: BYU 14, Gonzaga 5
I figured BYU would come out guns a-blazing, but not like this. They're not necessarily on fire, but they've got Gonzaga worked into a frenzy and the Zags are missing easy shots, especially under the basket. On another note, I notice that Tyler Harvey's dad, Frank Harvey, has made his way across the county to ref the game after his kid's tough loss.
7:50 PM: BYU 36, Gonzaga 36
OK, that's better. How fitting that Pangos dropped in a gorgeous jumper with just a few seconds left in the half. Good for him and good for the collective gut of Zag Nation, which is tuning in to a third straight slow start for a squad that, at least at halftime, is still poised for a No. 1 seed.
8:20 PM: BYU 57, Gonzaga 47
BYU is playing four guards on the floor and it's been working, so Coach Few pulls out the big guys and tries to see if the Zags can match up. Why is every circus shot the Cougars throw up going in? Who the hell is Corbin Kaufusi? What has happened to Kyle Wiltjer's Space-Shuttle hot touch? Why didn't we buy more beer?
9:10 PM: BYU 73, Gonzaga 70
The Zags made a hell of a run to close things up, but BYU would not relent. Eric McClellan tried to miss a free throw to give the Zags a chance to get three points on a trip down the floor, but it accidentally went in. Still, Wiltjer had a half court look that was very, very close to going in, but did not, and here we are.
9:30 PM: Senior night.
Oddly, Gonzaga does its Senior Night festivities after
the game, so there was a rather weird scene in the Kennel following the loss. Here's an account of that
12:01 AM: It's March
Things are not going to get less weird from here on out, I realize. Eastern has two regular season games left and Gonzaga will head to Las Vegas for the WCC tournament, but their No. 1 seed in that tourney means they don't take the court until Saturday. If they win both, who knows, maybe a One Seed after all? I stare into the night and speculate.