As I witnessed the final buzzer sound in Anaheim and reality sunk in, it hit me: I had just watched my last Gonzaga men’s basketball game as a student.
Like many of you, that was an emotional realization to say the least. It was hard to picture this season ending any other way than with a return to the Final Four. Yet, instead of hanging my head as I made that long, daunting walk back to my car, I gained an odd sense of confidence in what’s to come.
I walked past many Zags who were still smiling despite the outcome, many who said, “We’ll be back.” They had all the reason to — to get this deep in the tournament and compete at the peak of college basketball — we’re here to stay.
So, as I reflect on how I’ll remember my years of watching GU basketball as a student, I’ll remember these as the years we showed the nation that we belong.
Our class, the class of 2019, has a unique position in that we witnessed one of the most transformative eras of GU basketball and a tremendous shift in the way people viewed the Zags.
We witnessed the transformation from a team counted out, lacking the resume to compete with college basketball’s blue bloods, that could only dominate in the West Coast Conference — to a legitimate national championship contender. Most of all, we made the nation believe in us.
It all started when we inherited a team our freshman year in a state of transition. As fans, we immediately invested in the Zags no matter the heartbreaking losses to follow. For the first time in a long time, there was serious doubt as to whether GU would make the NCAA tournament.
Of course, we then watched as Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis lead a comeback to win the WCC Championship and take an No. 11-seeded team to the Sweet 16 despite all the doubters.
That run set the stage for a truly special year in 2017. None of us will forget that magical ride. We ate No. 1 cake for the first time and watched a deep roster come together as the country finally took notice. The way that team played for each other, their school, and their city was incredibly inspiring. Our first Final Four berth marked an arrival for the program that has battled for many years as the underdog and had now reached the top.
We continued to earn respect when our 2018 squad followed that season with an impressive 32-5 year and yet another Sweet 16 appearance, despite losing several key players from 2017.
Fast forward to 2019 and there was no mistaking the Zags rightfully belonged at the top of college basketball. We entered the season with our highest preseason ranking at No. 3 and proved all season how we are one of the best programs in the nation.
Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke became All-Americans, Clarke shattered GU’s single season block record while leading the nation and the Zags took down then-No. 1 Duke in Maui. There’s so much to be proud of with this team’s accomplishments and there’s much more to come with an extremely-talented recruiting class on the way.
While our season has come to end, I find peace in seeing how far this program has come while cherishing the unforgettable moments.
I’ll never forget jumping 5 feet out of my chair and hugging my friend Adam as Jordan Mathews, with ice in his veins, drilled a clutch 3-pointer to save the game against West Virginia in 2017’s Sweet 16.
I’ll never forget Hachimura’s buzzer beater to beat Washington and meeting Bill Walton after the game or dancing in the front rows of the Kennel on senior night, arguably the most fun I’ve had at a basketball game.
I’ll never forget that euphoric moment of advancing to the national championship and literally shaking the Hemmingson Center to its core.
I’ll even look back and laugh at camping in the BARC for the Arizona game freshman year and tenting without a sleeping bag along with five other clueless friends.
Of course, these unforgettable moments would not be possible without the amazing players who made their mark on the program.
We got to see the emergence of an exciting NBA talent like Sabonis.
We saw an inspiring comeback from Przemek Karnowski who suffered a career-threatening back injury, but returned to become the NCAA’s all-time wins leader.
We saw selfless leadership from Nigel Williams-Goss and electrifying dunks and blocks from Clarke.
We witnessed the remarkable growth of Hachimura who came to campus not knowing any English and transformed into a National Player of the Year Finalist.
These are just a few of the many players I could name, but each and every Zag, past and present, have played a pivotal role in showing how we belong. We witnessed an exciting rise to the top and the climb is not over. We saw it all in our GU basketball journey and it’s these wide range of stories that make me proud to call myself a Zag for life.
So, thank you, GU men’s basketball. Thank you for the team-first brand of basketball that all of us can get behind, the highlight-reel plays and the memories we’ll never forget.
And to all my fellow seniors, hold your head high. Our years of watching games in The Kennel may be over, but we still have so much to look forward to post-graduation.
So, let’s go set the world on fire and reunite when the Zags make it back to the Final Four. We will be back and when we make it, you better believe that glorious day is coming when we watch GU lift up the holy grail of college basketball.
Matthew Beaird is a staff writer. Follow him on Twitter: @MattBeaird7.