That time Gonzaga made its NCAA Tournament debut against Maryland

Few college basketball fans remember when little was known about Gonzaga, a small school in Spokane, Wash.

Long before the Zags became a perennial top 25 team or even a perennial NCAA tournament participant, the men’s basketball program at the Jesuit university was known for producing one future basketball Hall of Famer, John Stockton, and a crooner named Bing Crosby. 

The introduction as a burgeoning basketball power came in 1995, when Gonzaga played in its first NCAA tournament.

The opponent was Maryland, which a year earlier had reintroduced itself by making the tournament for the first time under Gary Williams and reaching the Sweet 16, where it lost to Michigan’s Fab Five.

Making the NCAA tournament was a big deal for Gonzaga. The team invited its fans to watch the NCAA selection show at a local hotel and held a campus rally before leaving town for Salt Lake City.

By the time the Terps and Zags had reached the University of Utah’s Huntsman Center for their opening-round game, Gonzaga coach Dan Fitzgerald had become something of a celebrity with some of his one-liners.

Asked about the matchup with Maryland and its All-American center, sophomore Joe Smith, Fitzgerald cracked, “It’s not David and Goliath, but it might be the prelim.”

Fitzgerald, who died of a heart attack in 2010, and Williams had become friends because both teams were sponsored by Nike. (Yes, it was that long ago.) When Fitzgerald heard that Williams had been hospitalized late in the regular season with pneumonia, he sent a get-well card.

“I sent him a note saying, 'Try Irish whiskey,' " Fitzgerald said at the time. "Now, I hope he listened to me."

The Terps had finished the regular season ranked 10th in the country after winning a share of the ACC championship. The Bulldogs – Gonzaga's official nickname – started the West Coast Conference 0-6 before a late-season surge.

Former Maryland point guard Duane Simpkins, one of three sophomores to start along with Smith and freshman Keith Booth, said that neither he nor any of his teammates knew anything about the Zags, who were led by John Rillie, who had spent time as a meat cutter in his native Australia before starting his college career.    

"The thing I remember is Coach Hahn [assistant coach Billy Hahn] had the scout on them; he was really pumping up this bald-headed white guy [Rillie] who was averaging 20 a game, and I remember saying, ‘Nah, coach, he’s not that good,’” Simpkins recalled Sunday.

“We had a lot of East Coast bias. We were thinking that there’s not going to be a daggone West Coast team that’s going to be better than us. That’s not possible. We had no idea who Gonzaga was. Absolutely not.”

Gary Williams said Sunday that a relatively unknown opponent is the toughest to prepare for in the NCAA Tournament.

"That was a dangerous game,” Williams recalled. “We thought we were pretty good, and not knowing anything about the opponent is never good. You try to convince your team that they can play; there’s a reason they’re in the tournament.” 

As things turned out, Gonzaga’s first trip to the NCAA tournament was brief. Despite Smith getting into foul trouble and being held to single digits for only the third time in his career, the Terps won easily, 87-63, behind 21 points from Simpkins, 15 rebounds by Booth and nine points in seven minutes off the bench from freshman Rodney Elliott.

“I just remember that we won the game and I remember having oxygen behind the bench in case I needed it,” said Williams, who had missed the last three games of the regular season and the ACC tournament.

"We got them to the mat," Fitzgerald would say after the game. "But like any good team, they got it together. Boom! They turned it up and hurt us."

Rillie, who is now an assistant coach at Boise State after a 16-year career in Australia and Europe, said Sunday that it was Simpkins and Elliott who did much of the damage.

“A lot was talked about Joe Smith, and rightly so,” Rillie said. “It was Simpkins that opened multiple 3-point baskets that really opened up the game. Rodney Elliott was averaging about 1.3 points a game and he torched us. The guys snuck up on us that you’d least expect.”   

Maryland eventually lost to Connecticut in the Sweet 16, another building block toward the team’s first trip to the Final Four in 2001 and its first national championship a year later.

Fitzgerald coached the Zags for 15 seasons in two stints before turning the program over in 1997 to assistant Dan Monson, whose departure for Minnesota in 1999 opened the door for Mark Few, who started his career at Gonzaga as a graduate assistant.

It took Gonzaga 18 more trips to the NCAA tournament, all but one under Few, to make its first Final Four this season and play in its first national championship game tonight against North Carolina.

Yet Rillie’s words in the leadup to that first NCAA tournament against the Terps bring back memories of Gonzaga’s rise from relative unknown to mid-major power to the brink of its first national title.

"It's great to be involved in something like this, but we won't have a full feeling of what we've accomplished until we get together in a few years and reminisce about the old days," said Rillie, who might have forgotten making just four of 14 shots for 11 points against the Terps until being reminded of it on Sunday.

Rillie, whose career highlight came when he represented Australia in the 2004 Olympic Games, is one of many former Gonzaga players who will be at University of Phoenix Stadium tonight.

Asked if he might feel as if he had a part in the championship should the Zags beat North Carolina, Rillie said: “I think anyone who’s been affiliated with the program should feel that. Everyone beams with pride. Everyone feels they had a little piece in it, a brick in the foundation. It’s a family deal.”     

don.markus@baltsun.com

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