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Originally published Monday, March 23, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

Gonzaga can beat North Carolina

Since a gritty little program from Eastern Washington emerged from the obscurity of the West Coast Conference a decade ago and started smacking...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Friday

Gonzaga vs. North Carolina, 6:57 p.m., Ch. 7

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Since a gritty little program from Eastern Washington emerged from the obscurity of the West Coast Conference a decade ago and started smacking around bigger programs from better conferences, we've been waiting for a matchup like this.

Since Gonzaga matured from the little engine that could, to that super engine that should, we've been waiting to see how it would react to a meeting in late March against North Carolina.

That time has come.

It's time for Gonzaga to win a game this big against a program this storied. It's time to step up and be the team it was supposed to be at the beginning of this season. Time to rise and realize its potential.

It's time for Gonzaga to play like the powerhouse it can be and not the Cinderella it used to be.

North Carolina, with all of its history and names and banners and prestige, is looming on Friday night. Carolina, a No. 1 seed, a loser only four times this season, is waiting for Gonzaga in Memphis.

And there's nothing about the Tar Heels that should scare the Zags. Forget the name and play the game.

It's time for Josh Heytvelt to play with the kind of 40-minute ferocity he played with the last time he matched up against Carolina All-American Tyler Hansbrough, on Nov. 22, 2006, in New York, when the Zags won 82-74.

On that night, Heytvelt outplayed Hansbrough, posting 19 points and eight rebounds to Hansbrough's nine points and nine rebounds. That felt like the beginning of something remarkable, but since that game Heytvelt has faded in and faded out.

He has been suspended and injured, and sometimes played as if he wasn't very interested. Meanwhile, Hansbrough became the hardest working man in college basketball, the poster child for March.

It's time for Heytvelt to play as if basketball is the most important part of his life, to match Hansbrough's work rate the way he did in '06, to lead Gonzaga into the rarefied air of late March.

Gonzaga is good enough to beat North Carolina. This shouldn't feel like some impossible dream, like some monumental upset possibility.

The Zags should be relaxed. They've won the games everybody expected them to win. They beat the first-round curse that has haunted them the past two seasons.

They took care of Akron the way a fourth seed is supposed to do it. And Demetri Goodson did his best Tyus Edney imitation, sprinting coast-to-coast to escape Western Kentucky on Saturday.

Gonzaga has regained the confidence it lost during a disappointing December, when it was beaten by Arizona, Connecticut, Portland State and Utah. The swagger is back. And the swaggering Zags are dangerous.

Coach Mark Few has spent the past four years putting together a team that can compete against the best teams in the country. He has size, shooters, passers, rebounders and reserves.

When they are playing well, the Zags move the ball as well as any team in the game. They are selfless and smart. When they aren't lapsing into one of those confounding careless stretches, they can play some of the prettiest basketball in the land.

This is their chance to put together all of their talents, to realize the dreams they had in October when they were the pundits' sexy choice to make it to the Final Four.

Gonzaga is good enough. The Zags have more NBA-quality players than Carolina. For them, it is a matter of sustaining their game from beginning to end.

In 1999, Gonzaga became an enduring part of March. Those first teams were composed of lightly recruited kids who played with the hunger of guys who wanted to be noticed.

Casey Calvary, Quentin Hall, Matt Santangelo, Mike Nilson, Zach Gourde, Axel Dench and others showed the country how far a team can advance when it plays the game properly.

Those players weren't tracking toward the NBA, but they made it possible for Gonzaga to take the next step.

They gave him the clout to recruit Jeremy Pargo out of Chicago, and Matt Bouldin from Highlands Ranch, Colo., and blue-chipper Austin Daye from Irvine, Calif.

They helped make Gonzaga a destination school, not a fallback plan.

Now, this team can honor those teams by playing with the same resilience and intelligence and guts, by playing hungry instead of playing satisfied, by winning the same kind of games those teams won.

Gonzaga over North Carolina?

It's time.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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