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NCAA BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT

West Slide Story / Top-seeded Stanford, No. 2 Gonzaga knocked out in the second round

Nevada Pulls Off Biggest Little Upset in the World Over Zags

March 21, 2004|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — So this is how it feels.

Gonzaga was finally the big dog, but the big dog is going home and 10th-seeded Nevada is in the Sweet 16 after a 91-72 upset of the second-seeded Zags, the Cinderellas of so many years past.

Amazingly, it wasn't even close.

Gonzaga guard Blake Stepp missed shot after shot Saturday, going three for 18 in his final NCAA tournament flameout.

"Short, long, in-and-out," said Stepp, a stunning one for 12 from three-point range. "I felt good. They just didn't go in.

"It definitely doesn't feel good to go out like this. We had a good season, but right now it doesn't feel like it."

The Zags (28-3) had trouble outside, and they had trouble inside.

Ronny Turiaf, Gonzaga's other NBA prospect, picked up his second foul 2 1/2 minutes into the game and his fourth less than two minutes into the second half, playing a mere 15 minutes in a game in which he seemed the Zags' best hope for a victory.

"There's a whole lot of disbelief in this room," senior Richard Fox said. "Even down by 15 at the last media timeout, we were talking about coming back to win the game.

"Maybe with a minute and a half to go. [Kevinn] Pinkney started getting dunks and you started thinking, 'This is probably it.' "

That was it for seniors Stepp, Kyle Bankhead and Tony Skinner -- and maybe for Turiaf, a junior who must ponder whether to turn pro after such a disappointing finale.

It was over almost before it began.

Nevada (25-8) leaped ahead by 14 less than nine minutes into the game on consecutive three-pointers by Todd Okeson, the Kansas farm boy who steers the Nevada offense and finished with 19 points, three three-pointers, seven assists and only one turnover.

Before halftime, the lead reached 20, though Gonzaga cut it to 15 before the buzzer.

"The surprising thing was being up by so much," Okeson said. "We knew coming in it would go down to the last possession and we'd have to execute late in the game. We were up more than we expected. That was the really shocking thing to me."

The game wasn't only about Gonzaga's shortcomings.

Nevada -- a school that had never won an NCAA tournament game before this season and hadn't even appeared in the tournament in 19 years -- was very, very good.

For much of the game, it was the slender, boyish Okeson -- not 6-foot-6 NBA prospect Kirk Snyder -- who led the way.

There were also huge contributions from Pinkney, the jumping-jack forward who had 20 points and eight rebounds and a particularly resounding dunk on an alley-oop pass from Snyder on an inbounds play.

The Wolf Pack repelled every Gonzaga attempt at a comeback, never letting the Zags get closer than eight in the second half.

They kept the pedal to the metal too, with Pinkney's dunking off a three-on-one break for a 14-point lead with 1:52 left, just when Coach Trent Johnson might have wanted them to use some clock.

Or consider Snyder, who finished with 18 points, nine rebounds and six assists.

With 30 seconds left, he took a three-pointer, and sank it.

Okeson, the less impulsive of the two, dribbled out the clock at the end, but Stepp already had headed to the Nevada bench to congratulate the winners before the horn sounded.

It was a particularly gut-wrenching end for Stepp, one of the best players in Gonzaga history. (He passed NBA great John Stockton for second on the school assist list the previous game.)

He knew after the first round his shot needed work.

Stepp was two for 11 in the first-round victory over Valparaiso, and stopped on the way back from the interview room to the locker room Thursday to shoot baskets, even as a school official tried to hurry him on.

"I have to find my shot," he said.

He never did, ending his career 23 for 94 (24.5%) in NCAA tournament games -- and only 10 for 61 (16.4%) from three-point range. His career shooting percentages entering the tournament were 42.3% overall and 39% from three-point range.

"You always think every shot he takes is going in," Fox said. "He's Mr. Clutch. I don't care what anybody says."

Nevada's Garry Thomas-Hill did much of the hard defensive work on Stepp, much as forward Nick Fazekas helped get Turiaf in foul trouble inside.

So Nevada moves on, advancing to a regional semifinal in St. Louis against the winner of today's second-round game between Georgia Tech and Boston College.

"You can't believe it," Snyder said. "I mean, Sweet 16. I can't explain how that feels. All these people in here listening to what I'm saying right now, it's incredible."

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

No. 2 Blues

Gonzaga's loss Saturday marked the eighth consecutive year that at least one No. 2-seeded team has been defeated in the first or second round of the NCAA tournament. No. 2-seeded teams that have lost in the first or second round since 1985 (the year the tournament went to a 64-team format):

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