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Looking back at Gonzaga’s ‘Heartbreak City’ and why it’s forever etched as a March Madness moment

Gonzaga forward Adam Morrison sits dejected on the court following a last second 73–71 loss to UCLA Photo by Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

As March Madness is almost here, we take a trip down memory lane and look back at some of the best viral moments in NCAA tournament history. Here is The Slipper Still Fits’ take on the viral moment sometimes known as “crying Adam Morrison”:

The adage says time heals all wounds. If anything, time gives you the space and perspective to examine certain situations in life, how/why they happened, and how/why you were affected so deeply by them.

In 2006, it is easy to understand why Gonzaga nation was absolutely shocked at what took place on March 23, 2006, in a Sweet 16 matchup between the No. 3 Gonzaga Bulldogs and the No. 2 UCLA Bruins.

Gonzaga, led at half by 15 points. Gonzaga, led by nine with three minutes to go. Gonzaga, which hadn’t made it to the Elite Eight since the famous 2000 blog title creating run, looked like they were going to do it, and why not. They had the All-American Adam Morrison, a one-man scoring and wrecking machine in college hoops that season.

We all know what ended up happening. Heartbreak City. We don’t need the visuals here.

When I think back to the all-time Gonzaga losses that hurt, at the time, the 2006 loss still rings out the loudest and truest. By all accounts, this was a game the Zags were supposed to win, because that is what teams who are up by 15 points at half do. Instead, UCLA scored the final 11 points in the game, culminating in a turnover (one of 17!!!) from JP Bautista to take the lead. Morrison, one of the most prolific scorers that season, dared what most men do not and showed emotion on the court. Thank goodness social media didn’t exist.

The lasting image of Morrison crying on national television, a scene in which he has received extensive ridicule from legions of emotionally insecure human beings, is interesting in that the losing image of the team that lost the game is the one that resonates to this day over 15 years later, not the winners.

However, I was most interested in looking back at HOW Gonzaga got to that very point.

A different era for Selections, also known as the rating index percentage

One of the major tools for the Selection Committee was using the RPI, a mathematical formula that was pretty wretched at determining anything. The RPI relied simply on a team’s winning percentage, their opponents’ winning percentage, and their opponents’ opponents’ winning percentage. Teams that played “tough” schedules (aka high RPI teams) had high RPIs.

The Zags finished with an RPI ranked No. 9, which makes sense for their No. 3 seeding. During the non-conference, they played Maryland, Michigan State, Connecticut, Washington, Washington State, Oklahoma State, Virginia, Saint Louis, Memphis, Saint Joseph’s, and Stanford.

A look at the modern metrics was not so kind to that Gonzaga squad. The Zags boasted the No. 2 KenPom offense but just the No. 174 ranked defense, the worst out of all of the top four seeds by an incredibly large margin.

However, Gonzaga, as the AP No. 5 team, riding a 20 game winning streak, and boasting some quality wins from earlier in the season, earned that high seed. If we ran that exercise again today, a more analytically-minded Selection Committee might not have been so kind.

Gonzaga almost didn’t make it out of the first round

Something that gets lost in the 2006 Sweet 16 game is that the Zags defeated the No. 14 Xavier Musketeers in the first round by four points. In fact, with a shade under three minutes to go, Xavier led Gonzaga 71-67. Morrison made his mark, hitting a three-pointer with two minutes left to give the Zags the go-ahead lead at 72-71, scoring seven of Gonzaga’s 12 points in those final three minutes to eke out the victory.

Gonzaga had to adapt for the second round win

The Zags had other scorers on that 2006 squad, including Batista (19.3 ppg) and Derek Raivio (11.1 ppg). After that, it was a severe drop-off in consistent offensive production. That is entirely understandable considering Morrison accounted for 36.5 percent of all shots taken when he was on the floor, and considering he averaged 36.5 minutes per game, that was a lot of shots.

Morrison averaged 18.7 field goal attempts per game. That is the highest total in 30 years by a longshot. Next up are Jeff Brown (1993-94) and Kyle Wiltjer (2015-16) at 14.7 attempts per game. Add that to Morrison’s 9.4 free throw attempts per game (also the highest total in 30 years), and it is safe to say that Morrison was the first, second, and third option when on the court.

So what do you do when your star scorer shoots 5-for-17, including 0-for-3 from long range in the second round of the tournament? For most other teams, that might end up being the end of it. For Gonzaga, they squeaked by the No. 6 seeded Indiana Hoosiers, 90-80, thanks to 20 points from Bautista surprising contributions from Sean Mallon and Erroll Knight.

What people say about it now

If you haven’t guessed by my writing in this piece so far, I am a firm believer that crying is something OK to do. Hell, if my collegiate career had just been cruelly taken away from me in an instant, I’d probably start crying as well.

Morrison, who was picked up off the court by UCLA’s Ryan Hollins and Arron Afflalo, said all of the right words after the game:

“That’s just a sign of a great program and great people,” Morrison said. “They had enough guts as a man in their moment of victory to pick another man up off the floor. That’s more than basketball and I would thank them if I could.”

Gus Johnson, who belted out the words “Heart. Break. City.” when he saw the emotions begin had this to say to the LA Times last season when revisiting the game:

“That was the greatest kid. He was just a sweetheart. And every time I look at that, I dang near start crying again. I was in tears for him, and I’m calling the game. I thought it was one of the most courageous moments that I’ve ever seen in sports. For him to just release that kind of emotion in front of the whole world, that’s what makes this tournament so special. That picture. That moment there, in defeat, because what it tells you is, these aren’t professionals, these are kids. His heart was broken.”

David Pendergraft summed it up rather perfectly. In sports, oftentimes, the most memorable games are the losses, those mysterious “what-if” games. What if Raivio hit the open corner three he had drilled all game? What if the Zags scored on just one possession during that 11-0 run?

Living in Spokane, just being a former Gonzaga player, you run into a lot of fans. Fans always ask you, ‘What’s your most memorable game?’ Well, if you’re not going to be a liar that’s easily your most memorable game of your career. It’s like, ‘Oh, that would be the UCLA game.’ You can’t avoid it.

The reason that March Madness is one of the greatest sports spectacles out there is summed up by the emotion that Morrison showed on the court that day. The thrill and the joy of advancing are absolutely real. In 2006, Gonzaga was on the wrong end of the madness, in large part due to its own collapse combined with stellar play from UCLA. Fifteen years later, the Zags delivered an equal, if not more intense, gut-punch when Jalen Suggs banked in a game-winning three in overtime during the Final Four.

These events are March Madness. They are not what necessarily defines the program, but they are definitely what defines the tournament. For Gonzaga, it is just one page in a long journey, that someday, theoretically, will peak with a championship and cutting down the nets.