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Friday, March 24, 2006 - Page updated at 04:21 PM

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Bud Withers

Gonzaga loses heartbreaker

Seattle Times colleges reporter

OAKLAND, Calif. — This one will sting at Gonzaga for an eternity, from fabled Jack and Dan's Tavern in Spokane to the souls of the Zags who watched it dribble away from their grasp.

Outshooting, outrebounding and, for most of the night, outplaying the UCLA Bruins, Gonzaga let a nine-point lead slip away in the final three minutes and 12 seconds, and lost a stunning, heart-rending 73-71 decision here Thursday night in the Oakland Regional semifinals.

Asked why he joined the Zags at midcourt for their traditional, season-ending group hug, Gonzaga coach Mark Few said, "Basically, I wanted to protect them a little bit."

But there was no protection from the relentless Bruins, who finally shook themselves awake down the stretch to forge into the Elite Eight against Memphis here Saturday.

It was a golden opportunity lost for Gonzaga, which had already played Memphis on the road earlier this season and played tough enough Thursday to believe it would have had a shot at the Final Four.

Instead, a terrific effort went for naught, and the Zags will rue it forever. For much of the night, Few seemed to outcoach his UCLA counterpart, Ben Howland, and his team executed his stuff well. It spread the floor, using the Bruins' defensive tenacity against them for quick backcuts to the basket, beat them for points on inbounds plays and rattled them with a trapping zone that caused three straight turnovers in the first half.

"Make sure you remember the good times," Few told his team in that shocked circle of humanity afterward. "We've had a lot of them."

The Zags were going to have another, one more that would have given them a school-record 30 victories. They were ahead 71-62 with 3:27 left after Adam Morrison made two free throws.

"It happened in a blur," said Morrison, who very likely played his last game at Gonzaga.

Erroll Knight fouled out under the UCLA basket, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute hit two free throws at 3:12. Surely Knight felt his teammates could extend his senior year one more game.

Morrison missed a 15-foot shot, and Mbah a Moute, who had 14 points and 10 rebounds, shoveled in a rebound. Morrison's abortive attempt was one of four straight good looks the Zags had down the stretch, any one of which probably would have put them out of the woods.

In the left corner with 1:33 left, Derek Raivio lined up a three-pointer that would have ended it. He missed. J.P. Batista got the rebound and probably should have tossed it back out, but missed inside. Darren Collison obliged at the other end with 1:25 left, however, and Gonzaga still led, 71-66.

Seventy-two seconds showed now, and Morrison penetrated and fluttered up a shot in the lane that also would have salted it away. It went in and out, and Bruins guard Jordan Farmar flipped in a right-baseline runner from 12 feet that made it 71-68 with 49 seconds left.

Both teams were out of timeouts after Gonzaga called its last one with 40 seconds showing, 26 on the shot clock. With the clock winding down, Morrison rose for a jumper that rimmed off, and in the scramble for the ball, Batista fouled Ryan Hollins. He hit both at the 19.7-second mark, and the Bruins were down 71-70.

The unraveling would soon be complete. Morrison took the ball inbounds against the pressing Bruins and fired it across backcourt to Batista, who has the best hands on the team. It was knocked loose by Cedric Bozeman and retrieved by Farmar, the Bruin who once was recruited by the Zags.

Farmar snapped it underneath to Mbah a Moute, and he laid it in with nine seconds left.

It was UCLA's first lead.

"I saw Raivio underneath, so I had to throw it higher," Farmar said. "Thank God he [Mbah a Moute] has a 7-2 wingspan."

It remained for Raivio to lose the ball coming upcourt, and after a held ball and a Bruins free throw, all Gonzaga could do was fling the ball 70 feet to Batista, who ended his college career by turning and shooting a desperation miss off the backboard. Then he keeled to the floor in front of the Zags' bench, consoled there by Few.

"We had the ball in the hands of the people we wanted to have it in," Few said.

Including Batista, on the key turnover.

"I thought he [Bozeman] fouled me," Batista said. Few seemed to concur, saying, "The steal at the end, or whatever it was, was a big play."

Asked about the Bruins' perseverance, guard Arron Afflalo said, "Three minutes is a long time."

Some would say it's a lifetime. That's how Gonzaga is going to look at it.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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