On November 22, 2006, the Gonzaga Bulldogs and the North Carolina Tar Heels met in the NIT Season Tip-Off semifinals, at Madison Square Garden. The Bulldogs defeated the Tar Heels, 82-74, leading by as many as 16 during the game.
At the time, the win was a huge deal. The Zags were a year removed from Adam Morrison fever, and everyone was wondering how the team would preform since Morrison’s early departure for the NBA.
The Tar Heels, on the over hand, were the No. 2 team in the nation, led by sophomore Tyler Hansbrough and freshman Ty Lawson. In fact, six members of the Tar Heels’ squad would eventually play in the NBA.
It was also the first-ever meeting between the two schools. North Carolina, the almighty Tar Heels, against the plucky hot new thing Gonzaga Bulldogs. The Bulldogs, although a house-hold name already, had only been to the NCAA Tournament eight-straight times at that point, a rather indistinguishable feat in the record books.
Josh Heytvelt added 19 points and eight rebounds. Derek Raivio led the Zags with 21 points. Hansbrough, who scored in double-figures in almost every college game finished with just nine points.
On Nov. 23, 2006, the Zags secured one of the school’s biggest victories to date. The win over North Carolina was the highest ranked team in school history.
Since 12 years ago, the Zags program has blown up in ways that few people in 2006 would dream. The Zags are now consistently sending players into the NBA and to the top leagues in Europe. The Zags are consistently securing top-100 high school players. The average threshold isn’t three-star anymore, it is four-star. The Zags have played in four-straight Sweet 16s. The Zags have made it to the Final Four. The Zags have played in the championship game (against North Carolina nonetheless).
Gonzaga’s recent success has truly felt like a turning point in this program. It feels like we are on the cusp of the Zags being a traditional powerhouse. Not just a perennial NCAA Tournament team, but a perennial Sweet 16 team.
Playing at North Carolina is another sign of that turning point. When the Zags and North Carolina entered into the home and home agreement, it was a huge deal for the program. Gonzaga has always scheduled tough, but this was bringing it to a whole new level. One of the biggest basketball program in America was coming to Spokane.
On Nov. 22, 2006, I was home alone, attempting to bake two pies for Thanksgiving, and yelling and screaming at a television. I was in my young 20s, there was probably more alcohol than necessary involved. If you would’ve told my hungover carcass on Thanksgiving morning as I prepared to drive from Seattle to Portland what Gonzaga would achieve in next 12 years, I probably would’ve called you a liar and pointed to the score of Nov. 23, 2006—a loss to Butler, 79-71.
The craziest part about it all. On Saturday, the Gonzaga Bulldogs will go to the Dean Smith Center, in front of 21,000 predominately Tar Heel fans, as the higher-ranked team in the contest. What a ride it has been, and what a ride it will be.