Eastern Oregon’s trip to Spokane last season on Halloween turned into the “Nightmare on Cincinnati Street.”
Not only were the NAIA’s Mountaineers facing the nation’s No. 1 team in Gonzaga, but they were doing so in the first game Zags fans were allowed back in the McCarthey Athletic Center following the previous season’s COVID-19 restrictions.
The teams will meet again Wednesday afternoon in the No. 10 Bulldogs’ final nonconference game before beginning West Coast Conference play. While last season’s game was an exhibition contest, this one will be a part of the regular season for the Bulldogs though it won’t count on Eastern Oregon’s record.
Gonzaga gave their fans a treat with a 115-62 victory last season against Eastern Oregon as Julian Strawther led six Zags in double digits with 18 points and grabbed a game-high nine rebounds. Gonzaga’s five starters played between 17 and 22 minutes.
“That was a pretty crazy experience for us,” Eastern Oregon coach Chris Kemp recalled in a phone interview. “But it kind of turned into a nightmare.”
Just five minutes into the game, EOU guard Max McCullough, the Mountaineers’ three-time NAIA Division II All-America honoree, suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament that knocked him out for the rest of the season. His backup, Paul Pennington, dislocated his elbow early in the second half and the Mountaineers had another player who took 10 stitches above an eye.
“It was kind of a blur after that. We were just scrambling,” Kemp said. “That altered our season.”
Needless to say, Kemp is a bit cautious about another trip to Gonzaga.
“I told everyone all summer we wouldn’t go back, then they called and offered a bunch of money and we couldn’t say no,” Kemp said. “Our guys are excited; it’s a great experience … I’m more nervous.”
The Mountaineers (7-4) lost 90-54 at Boise State on Dec. 6 in their only other game against a Division I team this season. That loss also was an exhibition for the Mountaineers.
But Kemp said going to Gonzaga is different. He recalled that his 7-year-old daughter, Aubrey, was in his wife’s arms during the game last year because she had never been anywhere as loud as the Zags’ home arena.
“She told me this year she wants ear protection,” Kemp said.
The Bulldogs (10-3), who have faced five Top 25 opponents in nonconference play, are coming off an 85-75 victory against Montana on Dec. 20.
It was Gonzaga’s 72nd straight home victory, the longest streak since the expansion of the NCAA Tournament in 1985.
“That’s crazy. Obviously that’s something that no one can really say they’ve ever done,” said All-American Drew Timme, who had a season-high 32 points to go with 11 rebounds. “It’s a testament to coach (Mark Few) and how he’s ran the ship and he’s always consistent.
“We didn’t have ‘The Kennel,'” Timme added, referring to the student section that was largely empty because of winter break, “and this place was still rocking.”
The Grizzlies trimmed a 17-point, second-half deficit to five with a little more than three minutes remaining before Gonzaga regained control.
“(Timme) made some big free throws and just like all year, we’ve been running everything through him pretty much,” Few said. “A lot of our offense is generated through throwing it into him.”
–Field Level Media