SALT LAKE CITY — The Gonzaga Bulldogs made their 2013 NCAA tournament debut Thursday in an arena located on John Stockton Drive.
A statue of Stockton stands outside the arena.
Stockton’s retired Utah Jazz jersey hangs from a rafter inside the arena.
Stockton, the Hall of Fame point guard from Gonzaga, remains one of the most revered legends in a city that loves basketball. Naturally, the Bulldogs expected plenty of love from the paying public for their game with Southern.
Early in the game, the Bulldogs did feel the love. As the game progressed, however, and Southern – a 22-point underdog against the top-ranked team in the country – continued to give chase, plenty of fans cheered heartily for the Jaguars.
“To be honest with you, it was a surprise to me, here in Salt Lake,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said after the No. 1-seeded Bulldogs survived a 64-58 thriller. “Everybody was so moved by their effort and their resilience and their confidence.”
The crowd of 12,621 at EnergySolutions Arena was riveted over the possibility of watching a No. 16 seed beat a No. 1 seed for the first time in men’s tourney history.
“The crowd gets going and everybody wants to see that first 1-16 loss,” Few said. “My guys played well when there wasn’t a whole lot going their way.”
DAVID STOCKTON SHINES
David Stockton, John’s son, spent plenty of time at EnergySolutions Arena (then known as the Delta Center) when his dad was playing for the Jazz.
The younger Stockton, Gonzaga’s backup point guard, had never played in a game at the arena until Thursday. The Stocktons have been full-time Spokane residents since David was in junior high.
“It was just another game,” insisted Stockton, who led all players with seven assists. “NCAA tournament game, so it was great.
“The fact that it was in Salt Lake City where I used to hang out is irrelevant, I think, because we’re here to play basketball, not worry about the stuff outside of that.”
A classless act by a fan early in the game was more than offset by the enthusiastic support fans gave both teams and the display of respect players and coaches showed for the opposition after the game.
Seven minutes had been played when a bearded man in the lower bowl of the arena shouted at Stockton, “You’ll never be your dad! Never!” Some fans responded with boos.
Coaches and players exchanged an unusual number of hugs rather than handshakes at the end of the game. Both teams were highly complimentary of their opponents afterwards.
“I give all the credit to those guys (the Bulldogs),” Southern coach Roman Banks said. “They’ve got a good ballclub, and we know they have a very good coach, and good luck to them.”
“They’re a good team,” Gonzaga guard Gary Bell Jr. said of Southern. “They’ve got some good guards, and they play really hard.”
Southern’s Javan Mitchell guarded Gonzaga star Kelly Olynyk much of the game. Olynyk enjoyed a big second half, and Mitchell was quick to praise Olynyk.
“He’s a really good player,” Mitchell said. “I really enjoyed playing against him.”
For all the consternation Southern caused Gonzaga fans, Bell said he never doubted his team would prevail.
“I wasn’t worried at all,” said Bell, a Kentridge High School graduate. “We had to execute down the stretch.”
When Gonzaga point guard Kevin Pangos nailed clutch shots late in the game, Few was the least surprised person in the building.
“You have no problem with whatever decision or shot that he takes or the results of those shots or a free throw at the end of the game because that kid has been in the gym 365 days a year,” Few said.