Just three short weeks ago, the men’s basketball team sat one game away from the West Coast Conference (WCC) Tournament Championship game. Looming in front of them stood the Gonzaga Bulldogs, 11.5-point favorites heading into the game at the Orleans Center in Las Vegas. In their two previous games, the Dons and Zags matched up well and gave those in attendance a great show. In their first matchup on Feb. 1, the hometown Dons kept the game close until the end, losing with players in foul trouble to the final tune of 83-79. Second verse, same as the first for the Dons in Spokane, Washington — just a whole lot louder and a whole lot worse. They went into halftime with the lead but left as losers at the final buzzer, 71-54.
But this was a different Dons team going into Las Vegas. Winners of their previous five games and boasting one of the most efficient players in the tournament to that point (junior Charles Minlend), the Dons were prepared to challenge one of the top teams in the country, guided by coaching wunderkind Todd Golden.
The Dons started out with a whimper, falling behind quickly and trailing by double digits for a majority of the first half. But then they came alive, diving for loose balls and playing hard-nosed defense on a Gonzaga team that had started getting complacent with their lead. Minlend turned in a strong first-half performance, drawing rave reviews from television announcers on his ability to slash his way to the basket and make plays to keep his team in the game. Senior Jimbo Lull gave a strong performance as well (a key factor in the Dons hanging around against a physical Gonzaga team), but got into trouble in the first half. And despite all the prognostications of doom, the Dons finished the first half 40-35, down only five points.
The mostly-Gonzaga crowd paid good money for their seats in Orleans Arena, but they only needed the edge as the Dons went to work in the second half, using a small-ball lineup to catch Gonzaga and usurp them for the lead on a 3-point play by Minlend. In the final 10 minutes of the game, there were nine lead changes as the two squads exchanged scores like Christmas presents. But it unraveled for the Dons when Lull drew his fifth foul, going over Gonzaga player Killian Tillie for a rebound and being forced to ride the pine for the remainder of the game. Sophomore Khalil Shabazz hit a transition to bring the Dons back within two points, but USF would get no closer; Gonzaga pulled away at the end and Minlend missed a diving 3-point attempt to cap off the match.
Following the game, Coach Golden addressed the media, saying, “I’m proud of the way our guys competed,” Golden said. “On a big stage, with a Gonzaga-dominated crowd, withstanding that early rally that they had, we competed.” The 22 wins accrued by the Dons tied them for the most in a season since the program’s reinstatement in 1985.