The Crying Game: Looking back at the UCLA-Gonzaga Sweet 16 classic
Gonzaga had just finished shredding Iowa to secure a spot in the Sweet 16 on Sunday night when former Zags big man David Pendergraft took out his phone and tapped out a text message to one of Mark Few's assistant coaches.
"Congrats," he wrote. "Now please go get some revenge."
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Watching Gonzaga eliminate UCLA on Friday would be cathartic for Pendergraft because the Bruins are responsible for by far the most agonizing loss he has ever endured. On March 24, 2006, UCLA scored the final 11 points of its Sweet 16 showdown with the Zags to emerge with a 73-71 victory in a game it trailed by 17 in the first half and never led until the final 8.6 seconds.
UCLA's stunning comeback paved the way for the first of three straight Final Four appearances under Ben Howland and signaled that the Bruins had reclaimed their spot among college basketball's elite. Gonzaga's collapse cost the program maybe its best chance at a Final Four and left star Adam Morrison so heartbroken that he openly wept with time still on the clock and crumpled to the floor in tears at the final buzzer.
"The rest of us weren't like that on the court, but afterward in the locker room we were just as devastated, every single one of us," Pendergraft said. "We believed we had a Final Four-caliber team, we were looking forward to facing Memphis in the Elite Eight, and then in a few seconds, it was gone. To get something ripped away that that suddenly or unexpectedly, it definitely hurt."
The 2006 regional semifinal between Gonzaga and UCLA is one of the most memorable NCAA tournament games in recent memory. What follows is an oral history of that game featuring many key participants or witnesses, each of whom are listed by their 2006 title.
• • • • •
One of the consequences of Gonzaga's blown lead against UCLA is we tend to overlook how good the 2006 Zags really were.
They defeated nationally ranked Maryland and Michigan State at the Maui Invitational, they rolled through the WCC with an unbeaten record and they entered the postseason with just three losses against UConn, Memphis and Washington, two of which went on to earn No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament.
The floppy-haired, mustachioed face of Gonzaga was Morrison, who led the nation in scoring at 28.4 points per game and waged a memorable battle for national player of the year honors with Duke sharpshooter J.J. Redick. Morrison's supporting cast included 6-foot-9 Brazilian double-double machine J.P. Batista, fearless point guard Derek Raivio, blue-collar big men Pendergraft and Sean Mallon and promising freshmen Jeremy Pargo and Josh Heyfeldt.
Derek Raivio (point guard, Gonzaga): In my four years at Gonzaga, I believe that the 2006 team was the deepest and most talented team I was part of.
Leon Rice (assistant coach, Gonzaga): Everyone talks about this year's team being Mark Few's best, but that group might have been able to beat any of them. You had a guy who could score against anybody. You had a big guy who was great. You had really good young guys. You had all the pieces. That team could have won it all.
Tom Hudson (radio play-by-play announcer, Gonzaga): It was maybe our first team people took seriously. Those other Gonzaga teams that came before it were viewed as plucky little underdogs. That team elevated Gonzaga from that Cinderella mold.
Rice: We knew had to get better defensively after the previous season. Adam was actually putting a lot of effort into that. I remember before we went to Maui, Few said to us in a staff meeting that he thought Morrison might have lost some of his scoring ability because he was working so hard on defense. The next game he goes out and gets 43 on Michigan State. We were like, 'Well, looks like he can still can score a little bit.'
David Pendergraft (forward, Gonzaga): Adam was phenomenally good that whole year. The battle between him and J.J. Redick was the first thing to hit SportsCenter every day we had a game. Even at road games, there were hundreds of people waiting to see him when we got off the bus. It was the closest thing to a rock star that I've ever experienced.
Hudson: It was almost like traveling with the Beatles. There were people at the airport or in the hotel lobby waiting to have stuff signed. I remember we flew into Portland, we get to baggage claim and there were three guys standing there with garbage bags of basketballs they wanted signed.
Hudson: The game at San Francisco that year, everyone was booing Adam. He was the villain and then he hits his first eight or nine shots, pull-up jumpers, post-ups, mid-range shots. All of a sudden the fans go from booing him to actually cheering. They were mesmerized. They knew they were seeing a special performance.
Pendergraft: Sometimes you caught yourself watching Adam and wondering how in the world did he do that?
• • • • •
Whereas UCLA didn't have any players scoring at a ridiculous pace and drawing Larry Bird comparisons, the Bruins still entered their Sweet 16 matchup with Gonzaga as slight favorites because of their stifling defense.
Howland's third UCLA team held opponents to 58.7 points per game, sweeping the Pac-12 regular season and conference tournament titles and earning a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. It was Howland's breakthrough season after taking over a team lacking toughness or discipline, enduring a losing season his first year and barely slipping into the NCAA tournament in year two.
One of the keys to UCLA's ascendance was the development of sophomore guards Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo, both Los Angeles natives and top 100 prospects who were the centerpieces of Howland's initial recruiting class. The Bruins also benefited from the return of do-it-all senior Cedric Bozeman from a torn ACL, the improvement of late-blooming center Ryan Hollins and the arrival of an outstanding freshman class that included point guard Darren Collison and Cameroonians Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Alfred Aboya.
Brian Dohn (UCLA beat writer, Los Angeles Daily News): I remember going into the season thinking they were a year away from a big-time run.
Kerry Keating (assistant coach, UCLA): We'd lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Texas Tech the year before and brought all those young kids back. We thought we could be pretty good that next year, but I don't really remember thinking at the beginning of that season, 'Oh s---, we could go to a Final Four.'
Dohn: Afflalo and Farmar had so much success in high school that they didn't get they weren't supposed to win. I remember Afflalo telling me when he was a senior in high school that he couldn't wait to get to UCLA to turn around the program. It was brash for a high school kid to be telling his future teammates they needed to be tougher, but he didn't mean it in a cocky way.
Keating: One of the reasons we got better was Ryan Hollins. When we first got there, we weren't sure about Hollins and what we were going to do with him. We tried him at the four that first year, and it really didn't work out very well. But he got tougher and he got better. By the end of that year, he really started to figure out defensively how he could impact a game.
Dohn: That team took on Ben's identity. It started the year before, but they just didn't have enough players and enough experience. I really think the ones who made that happen were Aboya and Mbah a Moute. They were tough kids. They were mature kids. These were kids from Africa who had lived on their own already. They were able to grind through everything, and it helped the others.
Donny Daniels (assistant coach, UCLA): We had a good team with good players, but that team wasn't Kentucky. I wasn't sure we were a Final Four team until the clock was winding down to zero against Memphis in the Elite Eight.
• • • • •
When Gonzaga overcame an off shooting night from Morrison to beat sixth-seeded Indiana and UCLA survived seven late missed free throws to edge 10th-seeded Alabama, it set the stage for a Sweet 16 showdown between the two best teams in the West.
It was Morrison and the vaunted Gonzaga offense against Howland's formidable defense with a trip to the Elite Eight at stake.
Overeager on offense and overmatched defensively, UCLA missed its first eight shots from the field, fell behind by double digits after eight minutes and trailed by 17 late in the first half.With Morrison and Batista scoring with ease at one end and Farmar and Afflalo clanking jump shots at the other, Gus Johnson politely noted on the CBS broadcast that the Bruins were looking "shaky."
"Shaky?" color analyst Len Elmore responded. "I think they should be embarrassed. Not only are they not able to score, they're not even able to hold onto the ball."
Keating: We kind of weren't ourselves early on.
Daniels: Adam was such a prolific scorer, he had so much size and he had such a high release point. We didn't have anyone that could guard him. Arron was our best defender, and Adam was too big for him.
Gus Johnson (play-by-play announcer, CBS): Watching Adam Morrison play that night, you thought you were watching the next Larry Bird. He had the floppy hair, the floppy socks, an incredible jump shot. I thought Adam Morrison was the best player in America and I thought Gonzaga had a chance to make a serious run.
Pendergraft: Coach Few did a good job keeping us focused at halftime. One of his lines I'll always remember was, 'One more half and you're the greatest team in Gonzaga history, no questions asked.' That was kind of the edge and approach we had the second half. And we kept a similar lead most of the game.
Dohn: I remember thinking, 'Man, I get to go home a few days early because I won't have to stay for the Elite Eight game.'
Hudson: I don't think I thought Gonzaga was going to beat UCLA by 40, but I wasn't really thinking that in an hour I was going to be sitting there speechless thinking, 'What just happened?'
• • • • •
Gonzaga still had a firm grip on the game when Morrison sank two foul shots to increase the Zags' lead to nine with 3:27 remaining.
Only the brilliance of UCLA and the blunders of Gonzaga enabled the Bruins to wrest control away.
In the last three-plus minutes, Pargo had a ball slip through his hands and out of bounds, Morrison missed three jumpers he sank numerous times that season, Raivio had a wide-open corner three rim out and Batista blew a put-back in traffic. UCLA made some gutsy plays too, most notably an off-balance runner by Farmar to slice Gonzaga's lead to three and a pair of high-pressure free throws from Hollins to cut the deficit to one.
The game's decisive sequence began with Gonzaga clinging to a one-point lead with 20 seconds to go and inbounding the ball against full-court pressure from UCLA.
Farmar and Bozeman trapped Batista and swiped the ball from him in the corner. Farmar fed Mbah a Moute with a pinpoint pass for the go-ahead layup. Then Mbah a Moute displayed uncanny presence of mind for a freshman, racing back on defense instead of celebrating his basket and poking the ball away from Raivio from behind to seal the most improbable of UCLA victories.
Johnson: Nobody in the building thought UCLA had a chance to come back. Down by 17? It was over. Then slowly but surely they kept whittling away, whittling away, whittling away. All of a sudden you look up, and 'Oh my goodness, they're close.'
Raivio: Things went wrong when we tried to run the clock down each offensive possession. We got away from what was working for us, which led to forced and contested shots at the end of the shot clock. It spiraled from there. UCLA then sped us up, forced some turnovers and then it was a different ball game.
Rice: It was almost the perfect storm. Morrison drives, gets to the rim almost and it rattles in and out. That goes in, we win. Raivio had a wide-open three from the corner. That goes in, we win. Then there's a foul call on Batista that you're like, well that was a goofy call. Everything that had to go right for them went right. Everything that had to go wrong for us went wrong.
Pendergraft: There were just random things that happened like Hollins making those two free throws to cut it to one. I'm not taking anything away from Ryan Hollins, but he was a 60 percent foul shooter and he knocked both down under pressure.
Dohn: You would have picked 97 other people in that arena that you wanted on the line at that time before Hollins.
Keating: If you go back and watch the video of the steal that led to Luc's layup, you'll see them come out four across. This is how good Ben was scouting. We knew Pargo would go long, so Darren backs off Pargo instead of denying him and the other guys never got screened.
*Farmar: We were going to foul if they got past halfcourt. We trapped Adam in the corner. When he passed the ball to Batista. It was myself and Ced. We were both swiping at the ball. We didn't want to foul that early. We wanted to create pressure and get a steal.
Keating: We probably got away with a foul on Batista at the end.
*Batista: I thought he fouled me. But, hey, they didn't call it, so you just got to keep going.
Daniels: They inbound the ball really quickly to Raivio and I just know he's going to pull up and make a jump shot.
Keating: The biggest play that nobody talks about was Luc's presence of mind after he scored to track down the ball, tap it away from Raivio from behind and then dive on it. Unbelievable play on Luc's part. You could tell he had an unbelievable presence.
Rice: That was the most painful loss in all of our careers. At least it was for me. We had played Memphis at Memphis and it was a close game. You never know how that would go the second time, but we had a great group. I think we were all confident we were going to beat Memphis.
• • • • •
While the details of UCLA's comeback have become hazy for all but the most fanatical Bruins supporters, the image from the game that remains iconic nine years later is the sight of Morrison seated on the floor with tears flowing down his cheeks.
It appears in CBS highlight montages every March. It's a popular meme on social media. There's even a Kentucky fan with the Twitter handle @MorrisonCrying.
Morrison declined an interview request from Yahoo Sports through a Gonzaga spokesman, but his former teammates and coaches universally praised his character and competitiveness and chastise those who make fun of him for crying. They each insisted they would rather have a teammate who bursts into tears after a heartbreaking loss than one apathetic enough to shrug it off in a matter of minutes.
The interest in Morrison's sorrow overshadowed the most heartwarming moment of the game. As the rest of the UCLA team was celebrating one of the program's greatest victories since the Wooden era, Afflalo took the time to approach Morrison, help him up and try to console him.
*Afflalo: I saw him laying there in tears a little bit. I just felt for him a little bit. He's a great player. There's really no reason for him -- outside of the fact he's a competitor and wanted to win, he has no reason to cry. He's a great player. He's going to have a great career.
*Morrison: That's just a sign of obviously a great program, you know, great people as far as they're concerned. They had enough guts as a man to come over in their moment of victory, pick somebody up off the floor. If I could thank them, I would.
Keating: For Arron to do what he did and show respect, that's just the type of kid Arron is. Everyone is out there going nuts, and he was over there like, 'This kid is out here suffering.' That kind of sums up Arron. He's just a great kid.
Dohn: Morrison was a trash talker and the whole game was going at him. To me, it just spoke about the character of Afflalo and that team.
Hudson: Adam hadn't announced it was his last collegiate game, but he knew it was over. So it was the combination of him realizing it was his last game and the way that it ended.
Johnson: I just applaud the kid so much for being able to show emotion like that on the court. He cared so much. He loved that school. That's where my "Heartbreak City" call came from. I saw Adam crying like his heart was broken.
Daniels: For Adam to feel so bad after a loss that he would collapse on the ground, that's a testament to him being a competitor. I really believe that. We respected Adam Morrison. That was the first time we had played against someone who competed like him. I mean, he was relentless.
Rice: Adam put it all out there every game. I'd rather have someone who cared about it like that than someone who could shake it off quickly and be like 'Oh well, we lost.'
Hudson: Last year, we were in San Diego for the NCAA tournament and there were some UCLA fans at the hotel. A couple of them came up and started giving Adam a hard time, telling him, 'We made you cry." Adam just looked at them, and said, 'No, you didn't make me cry. You had nothing to do with it.' I thought he handled that really well. I can't imagine having people remind me constantly of a moment like that.
• • • • •
The legacy of Gonzaga-UCLA depends entirely on your perspective.
For UCLA, it's the most memorable win of the Howland era and the springboard to three straight Final Fours. For Gonzaga, it's a painful memory made worse by the program's inability to advance past the Sweet 16 since then. For neutral observers, it's one of the most memorable NCAA tournament games of its era.
Johnson: I had lunch with Ben Howland the other day, and every time I see him, he always says, 'Man, that was my greatest moment as a coach.'
Dohn: Out of everything Howland did there, that run and that game was the most fun. The next two years, they had been there before so it was all about whether they could win it all. That first year, they lost in the championship game, but people were like, 'We're in the championship game? How great is this?'
Keating: I think our guys came out of the Gonzaga game even more confident than they were before. I do remember being in the locker room and we were all like, 'There's no way we're losing the next game. We're going to the Final Four.'
Dohn: It also gave a couple of key recruits — mainly Kevin Love — the vision that you can be successful at UCLA. Kevin used to do a lot of his interviews via email. I remember sitting in my hotel room in Indianapolis emailing him to get some thoughts on UCLA going to the Final Four. He was telling me that it showed they were a national program.
Raivio: I don't dwell on it. It happened, and it's over. If anything, I took some good lessons and apply those to when I play now. It doesn't bother me to discuss the game. Many of the teammates I've had in Europe will bring it up, especially around this time. The part that's tough, is knowing we worked so hard and positioned ourselves great and didn't close it out. We had a great group and didn't reach our full potential.
Pendergraft: Living in Spokane, just being a former Gonzaga player, you run into a lot of fans. Fans always ask you, 'What's your most memorable game?' Well, if you're not going to be a liar that's easily your most memorable game of your career. It's like, 'Oh, that would be the UCLA game.' You can't avoid it.
Hudson: I think the guys on that 2006 team would love to see this Gonzaga team win Friday and would love to see this Gonzaga team make a Final Four. That's the one thing that could get them out of the spotlight a little bit.
Pendergraft: There's pride in being part of that team, but the memory of that game isn't something I enjoy reliving. If Friday comes out in our favor, it will help a little bit.
* Quotes are from the postgame press conference in 2006
Full video of the 2006 UCLA-Gonzaga game:
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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter!