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Against UCLA, Zags get a shot at revenge

Why?

Why did J.P. Batista raise the ball over his head instead of muscling it to his chest? Why didn’t he pass it to Derek Raivio?

The answers to those, and a lot of other questions, are lost to the darkest pages of Gonzaga basketball history. As Gonzaga prepares to meet UCLA in Houston on Friday night in the NCAA Sweet 16, the ugliest scab in the program’s annals is being picked at.

In the very same juncture of the tournament in 2006, a third-seeded Gonzaga team met No. 2-seeded UCLA at the Oakland Coliseum for the right to play Memphis and a berth in the Final Four. What came of it was the mother of all crushing defeats for Gonzaga, a 73-71 Bruins victory that cuts to the quick for Zag fans.

UCLA did it with an 11-0 finish over 31/2 minutes — more on that later — and if that wasn’t jarring enough for the Zags, what happened over the next 10 days pained them more.

“I remember very clearly going home and thinking, ‘Memphis is good and they’ll just lose to Memphis,’ ” David Pendergraft, a sophomore forward on that Gonzaga team, said Monday.

They didn’t. The Bruins won a 50-45 game to advance to the Final Four.

“They won’t beat LSU,” Pendergraft remembers thinking of the national-semifinal matchup.

They did, convincingly. So the team that pulled the rug out from under Gonzaga barged all the way to the title game against Florida before losing.

“As they continued that run,” Pendergraft said, “it just made it worse.”

Not that it wasn’t already pretty miserable. The Zags, behind Adam Morrison, led by 17 points against UCLA and were still on top 71-62 with 3 1/2 minutes left.

“We were dead in the water,” says Donny Daniels, a Gonzaga assistant who was then on the staff of UCLA coach Ben Howland.

But the Bruins kept whittling, and Gonzaga couldn’t get a shot to go down — a three by Raivio from the left corner, a left-elbow jumper by Morrison that pinballed in and out.

UCLA closed to 71-68, and Morrison missed a 15-footer from the left side with 23 seconds left. Officials called a seemingly phantom foul on the rebound on Batista, the Zags’ steady 6-foot-9 center.

Ryan Hollins, a 61-percent foul shooter, made both free throws, naturally.

Meanwhile, Gonzaga had nothing but good foul shooters on the floor. As a team, it hit .782 that year.

Pendergraft inbounded left to Morrison, who was double-teamed. He flung the ball across the floor to Batista, just inside the arc in backcourt. Raivio, a career 92.7-percent free-throw shooter, awaited 15 feet away around the low block, unguarded.

Two shorter Bruins hounded Batista, who raised the ball over his head and had it flicked away by guard Jordan Farmar. He shoveled it inside to Luc Mbah a Moute, and he scored the winning points with 10 seconds left.

“I always think of (John) Wooden’s admonition,” said Jerry Krause, Gonzaga’s veteran co-director of basketball operations. “It isn’t what we teach, it’s what they learn. He (Batista) knew how to ‘chin’ the ball (cup it to his chest), capture it and not give it up.

“We hadn’t taught him well enough.”

Raivio was stripped from behind on Gonzaga’s ensuing possession, and Morrison, with a couple of seconds left, began to cry. Things had deteriorated so spectacularly in the final moments that when Batista, after accepting Pendergraft’s 75-foot inbounds pass, launched an 18-footer at the buzzer that would have tied it, Pendergraft says, “I just remember the feeling: ‘I know that’s not going in.’ ”

“We were really, really lucky to pull it out,” Daniels said. “We had no business.”

Aside from the breakthrough 1999 Gonzaga team that took eventual champ UConn to the last minute before losing, this was the Zags’ best shot at the Final Four. They had played at Memphis in December, and behind Morrison’s 34 points, lost 83-72.

Memphis had to wonder, too. Instead of what would have been an up-and-down game with Gonzaga, it got ensnared in an unspeakably ugly game with the Bruins. How ugly? UCLA made 14 baskets, shot 51 percent from the foul line, had seven assists and 17 turnovers, and it won. Hollins, who had hurt the Zags with free throws, went 2 of 11 at the line.

“You always get asked: What was your most memorable game?” said Pendergraft, recalling that piercing night. “It’s an easy question.”

Nine years later, he’s in business in Spokane but has a close friend on the Gonzaga basketball staff in former teammate Brian Michaelson. And when the Zags did away with Iowa on Sunday to revisit UCLA, he texted Michaelson: “Way to go. Now it’s time for revenge.”