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Saturday, December 9, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

UW-Gonzaga rivalry has become too engrossing to let die

Seattle Times staff columnist

Last month, the night before North Carolina played Gonzaga in Madison Square Garden, Washington's freshman center Spencer Hawes sent a text message to his Carolina friend, freshman forward Brandan Wright.

"Go at 'em," Hawes thumbed. "And let me know what works."

Rivalries revolve around such messages.

Washington's players watch almost every Gonzaga game. And Gonzaga's players know exactly what is happening every game day at Washington. They warily eye each other like competing predators.

And while the players respect both programs, they understand that no matter who they're playing, they're also competing against each other for basketball superiority in the state.

It's the best rivalry we've ever had here, but this rivalry is about to die a premature death.

In the fervid heat of the McCarthey Athletic Center in Spokane tonight, Washington and Gonzaga will play for the last time, or at least the last time for a while.

And that's a terrible mistake.

"It's a great rivalry," Washington guard Ryan Appleby said. "It's the kind of game you love to play in because you know it's going to be real competitive."

It is a game that has emerged from the shadows of college basketball. Two very different, ascendant programs from opposite sides of the state that have muscled their way into the nation's hoop heart.

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It's a game to cherish, the best basketball to hit the Northwest since Marv Harshman's Washington teams and Dick Harter's Oregon Ducks waged their epic fights in the 1970s.

It is the closest thing we have to North Carolina-Duke, or Missouri-Illinois, or Kentucky-Louisville.

It should live a long life.

"I look forward to playing the Zags," Washington's sophomore guard Justin Dentmon said. "I don't think they should stop the contract."

Some of the best memories of my youth are the nights I spent at the Palestra watching the schools in Philadelphia's Big Five — Villanova, Temple, St. Joseph's, Penn, LaSalle — play each other.

But even those rivalries almost died.

In the 1980s, then-Villanova coach Rollie Massimino practically shut down the Big Five. He argued that Villanova's conference, the Big East, was so deadly, he couldn't afford four more hoop wars against the hometown teams.

He canceled the "City Series" games, and it ate at the city's passion for college basketball.

The good news is the Big Five is back and Philadelphia basketball is better for it.

Washington-Gonzaga is a basketball baby in comparison to the traditions of the Big Five, but every year since the series was re-started in 1998, the games have gotten better and the rivalry has gotten badder.

"I think a game like this is what makes college sports special," Hawes said. "Look at the NBA, the rivalries are kind of fading. When you do have these special rivalries in college sports, it makes the games just that much more fun for everybody involved."

This is an instance when the college coaches and administrators should listen to the people, listen to their own players.

Fans from both sides of the Cascades want to watch this game. The players want to play in it.

"I definitely want the game to continue," Hawes said, "but it's out of our control."

Washington athletic director Todd Turner and coach Lorenzo Romar are canceling the rivalry, or at least postponing it a year. They're leaving a hole in our sports calendar, cheating us out of one of the biggest sports nights of the year.

"It won't be the same not playing Gonzaga next year," Appleby said.

I know all of Washington's arguments. Other games, like the Preseason NIT and a proposed Pac-10/Big-12 Challenge, are more appealing to ESPN. I understand the need to genuflect in front of the rich giant of sports broadcasting.

And I appreciate that idea that many of Gonzaga's January and February weekends are gimmes, while all of Washington's are grinds. Washington deserves some early-season breathers.

But we're talking about a night that has become part of the fabric of sports in this state. We're looking at losing something precious, something the entire basketball community in the state of Washington waits for every year.

I beg Washington not to make the same mistake Rollie Massimino made.

Don't kill this rivalry.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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