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'My role is to go in and beat the hell out of somebody': The day that willowy Mark Spink and Gonzaga took down Mad Dog and Stanford

Jan. 2—Editor's note: This is the fourth of a six-part look back at Gonzaga's wild run to the Elite Eight during the 1998-99 season.

In the excitement after beating Minnesota for Gonzaga's first NCAA Tournament victory in March 1999, coach Dan Monson told reporters that the win "validifies" the Zags program.

It was an effective portmanteau of an event that both validated the school's requirements that players actually be student-athletes, and verified the fact that such teams could still win big games.

But a disclaimer was high in every news story of the Zags' West Region upset of the Golden Gophers — that Minnesota was competing without four recently suspended players who were caught up in an academic scandal. It seemed to diminish the value of the upset, as if the win needed an asterisk.

So, it was the subsequent 82-74 upset of No. 2-seeded Stanford in a second-round game at Seattle's Key Arena that truly legitimized the Zags' abilities and amplified their potential — all in 40 minutes of unexpected legitification.

The Cardinal represented a bastion of academia, and held widespread basketball acclaim after their Final Four appearance the previous tournament. They were ranked No. 7 nationally.

So, no one could argue that this upset was anything less than the real deal.

The most stunning fact was that GU topped the Cardinal by beating them at their own game, being physical and hard-nosed, not only fighting to a 47-33 rebound advantage over the taller Stanford team, but doing so, largely, with a corps of substitutes that battled with a notable ferocity.

Reserves Mike Nilson and Axel Dench were juniors, and had the body types to go Greco-Roman with the hefty Stanford frontcourt, but the real surprise was the skinny sophomore who came off the bench — Mark Spink.

A willowy 6-foot-8, 190 pounds, Spink was 94 feet of elbows and attitude. And with starters Casey Calvary and Jeremy Eaton in foul trouble much of the game, Spink spent 14 minutes plastered to Stanford All-American Mark Madsen (6-9, 240 pounds). Madsen still finished with 15 points and 14 rebounds, but it didn't come easily for him, and statistics weren't tallied of his bruises and welts.

Here's how Spink defined his game afterward: "My role is to go in and beat the hell out of somebody and try to get some rebounds and a bucket here and there."

Spink finished with three points, five rebounds and four personal fouls, although some of the fouls probably deserved to count more than one each. His capacity to punch well above his weight was noticed by everybody.

"We watched Spink down there, at about a buck-ninety, and I think it was inspiring to all our kids," Monson said afterward.

The best compliments came from the Stanford big guys who were left to marvel at the effort of Spink and his like-minded teammates.

"They played harder than us," said 7-1, 245 pound center Tim Young. "They played really, really hard, and they were really, really physical. I don't think we were ready for that."

"Give them a lot of credit for the way they played and the heart they had inside," Madsen added. "The players we played against tonight on the Gonzaga team had a lot of heart. Tremendous heart."

A few years after Spink's departure, coach Mark Few called him "fearless." And in a larger sense, Few said he saw Spink as representative of "the heart and soul of what we were all about."

For his hustle and humor, Spink was considered one of the all-time great Zags teammates. An accountant living in Lake Oswego, Oregon, he's expected to attend this weekend's reunion of the 1999 Zags.

It wouldn't be a reunification without him.