A night to celebrate at Chiles as Pilots knock off Gonzaga
With 31 seconds on the clock and a win over Gonzaga finally tucked away Thursday night, University of Portland's players looked to the Chiles Center stands and waved their arms to the fans as if to implore, "Stand up and cheer!"
The UP faithful did. Heartily.
And when the final horn sounded, and hundreds of students had stormed the court to celebrate the Pilots' long-awaited 82-73 victory over the Zags, bedlam had besieged The Bluff.
What a scene.
I'll bring out one of my favorite lines:
Nobody beats the Pilots 21 times in a row.
Gonzaga had won 20 straight in the West Coast Conference series dating to 2003. The Bulldogs had beaten the Pilots in 18 consecutive visits to Chiles. The Zags had prevailed in 22 straight games against WCC opposition.
All of those streaks are history.
"We've been trying to do this for years," said UP senior forward Ryan Nicholas, now 1-6 against Gonzaga. "Finally got them. I knew it was my last game at home against these guys. It was the perfect opportunity to do it."
It had to be sweet for coach Eric Reveno, who in his eighth season at the UP helm entered the game 0-14 against the perennial WCC kingpin. For years, I've watched Reveno's Pilots give the Bulldogs a game for a few minutes at Chiles, or a half, or maybe a little way into the second half.
This time, there would be no faltering. The Pilots led from the moment Kevin Bailey drained a jumper 17 seconds into the game. They jumped in front 11-3 and led 34-21 and took a 39-31 advantage into halftime. They fought off an early second-half surge by Gonzaga and were in front 53-37 with 13 1/2 minutes left, then 69-52 with 6:10 to play.
The Zags cut the margin to seven points with a minute left, but that was as close as they were to get. And when it was over, Gonzaga's Mark Few was left to play the role of the gracious loser.
The Pilots "were flying around and beating us to pretty much every ball that was available," Few said. "They outplayed us on offense and at the defensive end. They deserve a lot of credit. They played with way more energy and way more passion. Portland did a good job bringing it tonight.
"(Opponents) are going to be aggressive against us, especially at home. We never got our feet set all night defensively. We'd get three or four stops in a row and then give up eight in the next three or four possessions. Portland did a great job of making shots and flying around and outplaying us all night."
The key to the Portland victory?
"Team play," Nicholas said. "We had how many guys in double figures? Everyone was sharing the ball."
Five Pilots scored in double figures, led by sophomore guard Bryce Pressley with 16 points. And Nicholas, the lone senior starter, chipped in eight points and nine rebounds.
"Defense," said Bailey, who made three big blocks to go with his 13 points. "We got stops and held them to one shot most of the time."
Gonzaga came into the game ranked first nationally in 3-point percentage (.443) and third in field-goal percentage (.520). The Pilots held the Zags to .448 shooting and, most importantly, 4 of 15 from 3-point range.
"A lot of little things," Reveno offered. "The hustle plays. If you don't get those, you lose."
Reveno said his game plan was simple: "Stop them in transition -- it helps when we're scoring like we were -- make them shoot contested 2's, (allow) no dunks or 3's. We didn't have a lot of breakdowns."
The Pilots shot .519 from the field and were 8 for 14 on 3-point attempts with only 12 turnovers against Gonzaga's pressure defense. At the other end, the Pilots had eight blocks and seven steals.
"We've played hard at times before and smart at times," Reveno mused. "Tonight, it was a combination of hard and smart."
The Pilots had some floor burns, too, to show for their efforts.
"We didn't dominate," Reveno said. "We had to scrap. We had to get loose balls. Guys were going to the floor those are the plays that win for you. There have been some games where that's a wash. It should never be a wash against Gonzaga. They didn't out-tough us."
The Pilots held Gonzaga's leading scorer, guard Kevin Pangas, to 12 points on 3-for-10 shooting, though he played the entire 40 minutes.
Reveno did a masterful job using 6-11 center Thomas Van Der Mars to guard the Zags' 7-1, 295-pound Polish man child Przemek Karnowski. When Karnowski left the game, Van Der Mars would follow. When Karnowski re-entered, Van Der Mars did, too. Karnowski wound up with 11 points and four rebounds to Van Der Mars' 11 points and five boards.
"Thomas was giving up 70 pounds," Reveno marveled.
A year ago, Gonzaga was loaded, ranked No. 1 nationally for the first time ever near the end of the regular season and a No. 1 seed before losing in the Sweet Sixteen to finish 32-3.
This year's Zags (14-3 overall, 4-1 in WCC action) entered Thursday's game ranked 18th and 22nd in the two polls. Clearly not as talented as last year's team, but a nationally regarded power nonetheless.
"I'm glad we beat them when they're pretty good still," Reveno said. "They're not as dominant as they were last year when they were a No. 1 seed, but they're still a good team. I enjoy beating a good team, darn straight."
Reveno hasn't made knocking off Gonzaga a crusade.
"When I first came to the league, (San Diego coach) Bill Greer used to joke, 'You'll become a Zag hater,' " Reveno said. "I don't hate the Zags at all. They're so great for the league. Coach Few is a great coach, a fierce competitor.
"I've always said, I don't want them to get any worse; I want us to get better. I get fired up because they're a good team. It's a good, healthy rivalry."
Well, now it may begin to be.
Every time Gonzaga plays at Chiles, it's a divided house. It was no different Thursday night. That has to annoy the Pilots' coach, right?
"It doesn't annoy me," Reveno maintained. "I did see a lot of Gonzaga shirts here tonight, but let's not forget where that bar is.
"My line when I go to a high school in Portland and see a kid wearing a Gonzaga shirt, I'll say, 'Is all your good stuff dirty?' But they're good. They've earned it."
What does the victory mean for the Pilots, 10-7 overall, but only 2-3 in WCC play?
"It's huge for the program," Bailey said as he accepted congratulations from fans on the court afterward. "It shows that we -- sorry, I'm a little excited -- it shows we can beat anyone. We have to come every time with this."
"It's what you do next," Reveno said. In 2009-10, "we beat UCLA and Minnesota and got ranked and came back and lost to Portland State.
"This can be a landmark victory for us. If you keep going up the hill, it becomes a sign post along the way that marks the journey. But if it's just a blip in the road, it's, 'Boy, that was a great game.' I don't want to be a great-game coach; I want to be a great-team coach."
The Pilots aren't a great team. Reveno has some depth for a change, though.
Bailey, Van Der Mars and Nicholas provide a solid if undersized front line. Pressley -- son of former NBA player Harold Pressley -- was sensational Thursday night, making 5 of 6 shots from the field, 2 of 2 from 3-point range and 4 of 4 from the line to go with nine assists, no turnovers, two steals and two blocks.
Freshman point guard Alec Wintering -- listed at 5-11 but probably 5-9 -- is a reluctant shooter but a nice little playmaker. And JC transfer Bobby Sharp came off the bench to sink 4 of 8 from beyond the arc.
So maybe the Gonzaga win is the beginning of something big for a program that hasn't been there for an awfully long time.
Forty-five minutes after game's end, several Portland players still mingled with family and friends on the court. In their uniforms. They looked like they didn't want to take them off. A shower could wait.
It was that kind of night at the Purple Palace.