UCLA-Gonzaga rivalry still carries weight

It’s difficult to believe that, with UCLA’s storied tradition and Gonzaga’s run of success in the last two decades, Saturday’s matchup will be only the third between the schools — and one of those prior meetings required the stars to align in the 2006 NCAA tournament. Tipoff between the visiting, ninth-ranked Bulldogs and unranked Bruins is set for 10 p.m. ET on ESPN2 and WatchESPN.

It’s a shame the Bruins and Bulldogs haven’t gotten together more through the years, considering their proximity -- a flight between Spokane, Wash., and Los Angeles is a little less than three hours (a drive of 19 hours and change), how good both teams perennially are and how interesting the previous two games have been.

Evidently, the schools see the appeal, as they signed an agreement May 14 to play a home-and-home series, which begins Saturday. Next year's game will be the teams' first meeting at McCarthey Athletic Center, aka “MAC,” the Zags’ home floor.

It’s an opportunity to ignite a series that has the potential to be one of the West Coast’s best inter-conference rivalries.

The history is already there, as is the rivalry, as the teams have split their two meetings.

The first came in '99, Mark Few’s first full season on the job as head coach at Gonzaga, having taken over following the departure of Dan Monson the previous April. With seven players returning from the 1999 Elite Eight team, the No. 24 Zags walked into Pauley Pavilion on Dec. 11, and smothered Steve Lavin’s 11th-ranked Bruins, 59-43. Gonzaga rallied from a 26-21 halftime deficit on the strength of its defense, which limited UCLA to 26.0 percent shooting (16-for-61), including 15.1 percent on 3s (4-for-26). Ryan Floyd led Gonzaga with 17 points on 5-for-8 shooting from three-point range, while Casey Calvary and Richie Frahm each posted a double-double. Calvary finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds; Frahm, 10 and 10. Both teams would get eliminated in the round of 16 of that year’s NCAA tournament and would finish one after the other in the coaches’ poll, UCLA at No. 23, Gonzaga, No. 24).

The teams would not meet again until March 22, 2006, at Oakland (Calif.) Arena, in a Sweet 16 game, coincidentally, when third-seeded Gonzaga (ranked fifth by AP and USA Today/ESPN) met second seed UCLA (seventh according to AP, eighth by USA Today/ESPN). The game would turn out to be a classic.

Led by the nation’s second-leading scorer and Player of the Year candidate Adam Morrison, Gonzaga did not trail for almost the entire game, holding a double-figure lead for the final 12:49 of the first half, leading by as much as 17. The Zags were up 42-29 at halftime. With five minutes to play, the Bruins still trailed, 69-59, but then put the madness in “March Madness.” Trailing 71-62 with 3:13 to play, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute hit a pair of free throws that began a game-ending 11-0 run. That burst included six points in 42 seconds to turn a 71-66 deficit with 61 seconds to play into a 72-71 lead with 10 left. The go-ahead points came on a Mbah a Moute layup off an alley-oop pass from Jordan Farmar, following a steal after a made free throw.

Arron Afflalo and Farmar paced the Bruins with 15 each (Farmar added six assists), while Mbah a Moute had 14 points and 10 rebounds. The Bruins would eventually make it to the championship game, where they would lose to Florida. They finished seventh in the final AP poll, two spots behind Gonzaga (UCLA was second, Gonzaga 10th in the final USA Today/ESPN poll).

Morrison, who scored a game-high 24 in that Sweet 16 game, on 10-for-17 shooting (his 10 field goals made remain third in school history for most in an NCAA tournament game), is better remembered for the image of him lying face-down on the floor, jersey pulled up over his head, to hide his tears. It’s an image that has become synonymous with the heartbreak of the NCAA Tournament.

On Saturday night, fans will find out who will be the newest hero in the series and who will create the next indelible video image.

They then can rejoice, too, in knowing there will be an encore next year in Spokane.

NOTES: Gonzaga will meet Pittsburgh in next November's Armed Forces Classic, marking the first-ever meeting between the two nationally-recognized programs.The Armed Forces Classic, a series of Division I men’s college basketball games played on United States military bases worldwide over a five-year rotation, will originate from the Marine Corps Base Camp Smedley D. Butler in Okinawa, Japan.