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Przemek Karnowski has reached the mountaintop

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After overcoming serious injury, the NCAA’s all-time winningest player and Gonzaga’s bearded talisman prepares for his collegiate swan song.

Xavier v Gonzaga Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

In front of a raucous crowd in The Kennel on December 7, playing against the in-state rival Washington Huskies that featured likely top NBA draft pick Markelle Fultz in its lineup, a 7’1” 300-pound mountain of a man beat every single player down the floor for a fast break dunk.

Considering that almost exactly one year prior the mountain of a man suffered a back injury that left him wondering whether he’d be able to walk again, let alone play basketball, that one play was equal parts astonishing and cathartic.

Five games into the 2015-2016 season—a year that was expected to be his final season at Gonzaga—the mountain known as Przemek Karnowski took an awkward fall in a December practice. Something felt wrong to the big man from Poland, but he finished practice. It ended up being the last time he played basketball that season, and could have easily been the last time he ever played basketball.

Karnowski’s back injury was so debilitating that coaches were concerned about his future. “Literally we were rooting for him to come back from that and just be able to function and have a normal life,” remarked head coach Mark Few. “There was no basketball involved.” Karnowski eventually underwent surgery, and an accompanying infection caused him to lose 60 pounds that left him a shadow of his former self.

Karnowski’s collegiate career was put on hold as he underwent the long road to recovery. During that time, he watched his short-handed team will its way to a Sweet 16 appearance in the 2016 NCAA Tournament. After receiving a medical redshirt from the NCAA that preserved his final year of eligibility, Karnowski announced in the spring of 2016 he was coming back to Spokane.

Prior to the start of the 2016-2017 campaign, it was impossible for those outside the program to predict with any reliability how Karnowski would perform. However, it didn’t take long for him to show the world that he was back and better than ever.

In just the third game of the season and less than a year removed from fusion surgery, Karnowski scored 22 points against Bryant University. He followed that up by helping the Zags pick up the AdvoCare Invitational Championship in Florida the following week; then put in a masterful performance against the Arizona Wildcats by scoring 18 points and locking down their heralded big men. The Mountain was back.

Though Karnowski is averaging a career high 12.2 points per game to go along with 5.8 rebounds per game, his numbers are eclipsed by other players. However, there are few players, if any, that can match his outsized influence on a game.

His size and skill level allows the Zags to run their offense efficiently through the post, with his preternatural court vision and passing ability flummoxing opposing defenses who are left wondering how many men they can commit to defending him.

It’s no surprise then that Gonzaga’s best years have coincided with Karnowski’s presence. The big man from Torun, Poland has won more games in his collegiate career than any other player in the history of Division I basketball. Karnowski passed Duke’s Shane Battier (131 wins) when the Zags beat Saint Mary’s in the WCC Championship. Now, with 136 wins to his name, he has the chance to add two more to his tally.

In what will be the final weekend of his college basketball career, Karnowski can complete his storied career with a national championship. As one of the most beloved players in program history, you get the sense that everyone affiliated with the program, and the fanbase as a whole, wants a championship for Karnowski as badly as he wants one for all of them.

Regardless of what happens during the weekend, however, Karnowski has already reached rarified air at the top of the mountain. He has been a great college basketball player. He will forever be a great Zag.