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'A special place in my heart.' Gonzaga's Ben Gregg scores 13 points in meaningful Portland homecoming

Feb. 22—PORTLAND — Ben Gregg normally sees a few more familiar faces in the crowd when Gonzaga makes its annual trip to the Rose City.

There may have been a record number of No. 33 jerseys scattered behind the visiting bench Thursday night when the Bulldogs took on Portland, roughly 20 miles from where Gregg grew up in the suburb of Clackamas.

"This is kind of where it started," Gregg's father, Matt, said.

That's true from a few different standpoints.

Gregg's basketball career started not far from where the Zags played on Thursday, and the Chiles Center is home to another important college milestone for the fourth-year junior.

Coming off the bench for the Zags' national runner-up team in 2020-21, Gregg, who left Clackamas High School one semester early to enroll at Gonzaga, scored his first college points in a Jan. 9, 2021, victory on the Bluff.

"My first college bucket was here, so it's got a special place in my heart," Gregg said. "For sure."

Four years later, Gregg was announced in Gonzaga's starting lineup in front of numerous friends and family members — a moment that wasn't guaranteed at the start of the year when the veteran forward was still coming off the bench for Mark Few's team.

"I looked up, just seeing all these people I knew, not sure how they got a ticket but probably my dad," Gregg said. "It was super special for me. I've played here before, but not at the extent of what I'm doing now, playing more minutes and all of that. It's really special for me. It's cool."

In his first two outings at the Chiles Center, Gregg played 11 total minutes, scoring two points on 1-of-3 shooting from the field.

The numbers looked a lot better in Gonzaga's 86-65 victory over the Pilots on Thursday. Gregg was the first player in the game to reach double figures and finished with 13 points on 5-of-9 shooting from the field and 3 of 6 from the 3-point line. He also had four rebounds and four assists in 27 minutes.

"I think it's cool, it doesn't matter where he's at, he just does him," Matt Gregg said. "That's what he's been doing and he shows up and he's a team guy. The bottom line is, if they win he's happy. It doesn't matter if he's got two or 20. That's the good part."

Gregg's father was the first to get a text message last month when the junior learned he was moving into Gonzaga's starting lineup, replacing freshman Dusty Stromer.

"We text all the time and basketball-wise, he always reaches out to me first because he knows how interested I am in all that and I was just super pumped for him," Matt Gregg said. "... It's just been a blessing all the way around."

Gregg had played 87 games over four seasons at GU before receiving his first start on Jan. 18 at Pepperdine. The forward's first home start came seven days later against San Francisco.

"We didn't know if it was ever going to happen," Matt said. "I'm glad coach gave him confidence and believes in him. After the Kentucky game, I texted coach Few and I said, 'Man, I'm like giddy over this win.' He's like, 'Ben played with toughness and he's a Zag.' That's what I hear from him all the time is, 'He's a Zag.' "

Matt Gregg was in attendance at Rupp Arena when his son scored 14 points and hauled down five rebounds to help Gonzaga upset 22nd-ranked Kentucky 89-85 on Feb. 10.

"The problem was there was 20,000 people and I think about 150 Zag fans," said Matt Gregg, who sat near the top of the venue and one row behind Claude Nembhard, the father of GU point guard Ryan Nembhard. "So it was chaos. Claude was in front of me, then me, then there was a lady in front of Claude that was trying to cause some problems for Kentucky. We shut her down quick. We owned our area, we were at the top and we owned our area. It was good."

There was a stronger Gonzaga presence — and stronger Gregg presence — at the Chiles Center on Thursday. With the help of assistant coach Brian Michaelson, Matt scared up 16 tickets from the school for family members and friends who wanted to attend.

"I let my dad take care of all of that," Ben said. "I checked, it was like 20 people."