I always felt there was a mystique surrounding the University of San Francisco’s War Memorial Gymnasium. Gonzaga never seems to have an easy game there and the times they have lost are very memorable, especially the three consecutive at the beginning of the decade. The Free Ira Brown guys confirmed my trepidations on this week’s podcast by corroborating War Memorial is indeed the third toughest WCC venue in which the Zags play. It’s a scary stat until you realize how dominant Gonzaga has been in the WCC. When you win .895% of your conference games, you’ve had incredible success even at the toughest venues. That’s the case for the Zags, their record against USF over the past 20 years has been 38 – 4, they’ve won the last 14 contests, and their record at War Memorial during that period has been 16 – 4.
Despite the dominance, those four losses loom large in the minds of Gonzaga fans. Here’s a look back at those games and at one incredible comeback that helped save a season:
20 Jan 2005, USF 73 – GU 70: This Gonzaga team had potential. Senior Ronny Turiaf and JC transfer JP Batista were dominating the paint, sophomore Derek Raivio was shooting 46% from 3 and 90% from the line and sophomore Adam Morrison, the team’s leading scorer, was proving to be something special. They’d already beaten 14th ranked UW, 3rd ranked Georgia Tech then the new 3rd ranked team Oklahoma State. Despite losing at Moraga 12 days earlier, the Zags entered the game the 11th ranked team in the nation.
Simply put, this was one of Mark Few’s “five bad games per year”. USF had won nine straight home games but were really a mediocre team. Gonzaga shot 36% in the 1st half and trailed by 15 at the break. USF extended the lead to 19 during the 2nd half. Derek Raivio and David Pendergraft scored 10 straight points at the end of the game to make it close, but GU couldn’t overcome the 9 for 27 shooting night for Morrison and Raivio. USF was led by 6’4” wingman Jerome Gumbs who scored 18 points and a career high 13 rebounds.
GU would finish the season winning their next 13 games before suffering a disappointing loss in the NCAA Tounament to Bobby Knight’s Texas Tech. USF would go 6 – 8 in their remaining games including a loss to Cal State Fullerton in the second round of the NIT.
30 Jan 2010, GU 77 USF 81 (OT): Another great name is the annals of USF basketball was Dior Lowhorn. San Francisco native Lowhorn was lured to Texas Tech to play for Bobby Knight who was then the winningest coach in NCAA history. That sojourn lasted one season with Lowhorn returning to USF to play for Eddie Sutton who was then the 2nd winningest coach in NCAA D-1 history. Lowhorn at 6’7” and a couple of biscuits under 240lbs could bang in the paint as well as shoot from deep. He was twice WCC scoring leader and twice first team all-WCC.
The 13th ranked Zags were riding a 9-game win streak into this game after suffering a 76-41 embarrassment at the hands of Duke at Madison Square Garden. They had also won 22 straight WCC games. The contest was back and forth all game, Gonzaga would have a 10-point lead then USF would score the next nine. Steven Gray made two free-throws with 25 seconds left to give the Zags a 67-64 lead, but Lowhorn made a three with 9-seconds left to send the game into overtime. The extra period opened with Lowhorn hitting two more 3s and the Zags couldn’t keep pace.
Gonzaga would go on to win the WCC regular season title, but lose the WCC Tournament to an unnamed, pseudo Bay Area team featuring an unpleasant Egyptian and an Aussie Neanderthal. GU would lose to Syracuse in the 2nd round of the NCAA tourney, the unnamed team would make it to the Sweet 16 and USF would finish the year 12-18. Meanwhile Dior Lowhorn would spend the next decade playing professionally in the Czech Republic, Argentina, the Philippines and winning a league championship in Indonesia last season
22 Jan 2011, GU 91 USF 96 (OT): In 1977, a mop-haired teen heartthrob named Robby Benson stared in a basketball movie called One on One. In 2011, a mop-haired freshman named Cody Doolin, who looked a lot like Benson, played for USF. As Peter wrote in 2013, Doolin proved to be a player you love to hate.
Gonzaga just couldn’t get it together early in the 10-11 season. They opened the year losing 5 of their first 9 games and started this road trip by losing to Santa Clara on a Thursday before playing USF on Saturday. Mark Few was struggling to find an effective lineup started seldom used Mathis Keita against USF. It didn’t help, all five USF starters scored 15 or more points with Doolin, who was averaging 6.7 points per game, leading the way with 23. Doolin also clinched the game with including a 3-point play to end overtime. Gonzaga would return home following Thursday to lose to the Moraga boys for their third straight WCC loss.
At the end of the regular season, Gonzaga was outside the NCAA bubble looking in. It took beating USF 71 - 67 in the final of the WCC Tournament to clinch a NCAA berth. USF would finish the season 19 – 14 (10 – 4 in the WCC). Cody Doolin would play 1.5 more years at USF before leaving in the middle of his junior season. He stated he was involved in a fight during practice with the melee encouraged by Coach Walters. Doolin spent his senior season at UNLV where he started all 33 games.
18 Feb 2012, GU 65 USF 66: One of the most galling aspects of these three consecutive losses to USF was their coach Rex Walters. Walters seemed to possess a punchable smugness that made losing to him and his teams even more galling. Walters, a star at Kansas and a 1st round NBA pick also had a bit part in the basketball movie Blue Bloods. He would win 20 games at USF this season, a first for the Dons in 30 years. USF held a ceremony for their great center Bill Cartwright before the game and it appeared the USF program was experiencing a resurgence. Interesting Trivia: What do Walters and Rui Hachimura have in common? Both have Japanese mothers (it’s true).
The game was hard fought with the lead changing hands 5 times in the second half. USF was pressing Gonzaga’s freshman guard combo of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. causing the Zag to commit 22 turnovers. Despite the sloppy play, the Zags were in a position to win the game with over a minute left to play. A loose ball in the lane was tied up and whistled a jump ball with the Zags having the possession arrow until another ref overruled the call saying USF had possession and called timeout. It was a terrible call costing the Zags a key possession. Still, GU held a one-point lead with 8-seconds left. An Elias Harris miss ended up in the hands of USF senior guard Rasheed Green who went the length of the court, bowled over Pangos and made a buzzer beating scoop shot to win the game.
Gonzaga would lose inthe WCC Tournament to the Moraga boys in overtime, but their 25 – 5 record earned them an at large NCAA Tournament berth. They lost in the second round to Ohio State. 20-win USF lost the WCC tourney final to the Moraga boys then lost in the1st round of the CBI to Washington State. Rex Walters would win 21 games two years but that would he his highwater mark. USF would soon return to the middle of the WCC pack costing Walters his job.
2 Jan 2016, GU 102 USF 94: If War Memorial held a curse over the Zags, this is the game that broke it. The “Big 3” season was in jeopardy of going bust as the offense sputtered without its hub and the inexperienced backcourt struggled to find their way. Coming off home losses to Arizona and UCLA, the first road trip of WCC didn’t start well as GU had to hold on to a 79 - 77 win against Santa Clara before traveling across the bay for to take on USF
The game started slowly and neither team was shooting well with USF taking a 38 – 34 lead at the half. USF continued to extend their lead throughout the second half, making it 16 points at the 8-minute mark. The Zags showed a little life over the next 5-minutes, but the lead was still 10 at 2:54. Then the miraculous occurred. Gonzaga would score 13 straight point to take an 82 – 79 lead with 20-seconds left to play. Tim Derksen made a desperation 3 to send the game into overtime but the Dons were out of fight, the Zags outscored them 20 to 12 in the extra period. Domas Sabonis ended the game with 35 points and Kyle Wilter dropped 30.
USF would finish the season at 15 – 15 then fire coach Walters. The Zags offense continued its struggles as the season progressed. They lost at home to BYU then lost both home and away games to the boys from Moraga. After a February loss at SMU, the Zags were once again outside the NCAA tourney bubble looking in. Going into March it suddenly all came together for the Zags.
They beat BYU at Provo to win a share of the WCC regular season championship. They again beat BYU and finally defeated the Moraga boys to win the WCC Tournament and it’s automatic NCAA berth. They then defeated heavily favored Seton Hall and Utah before succumbing to the Syracuse press and blowing a 9-point lead. If you want to relive the memories, Gonzaga: The March to Madness is still available on HBO GO.