PORTLAND — It’s good to be champ. To have your very own conference as your very own kingdom. To be able to ward off the most valiant of challenges from the most worthy of challengers.
Yes, it’s good to be Gonzaga, and to open conference play on the road against your toughest rival, surviving all the haymakers and body punches you could possibly absorb.
For there were the Zags, still on their feet Saturday after an 81-78 win at the University of Portland. Still standing after the Pilots’ Jared Stohl caught a pass that was headed out of bounds, turned and fired it over his shoulder, then watched it bounce off the rim as the final buzzer sounded.
Portland was just that close to tying the game. But as the saying goes, you can’t become the new champ unless you knock out the old one.
“Credit them for being a good basketball team year in and year out,” Portland coach Eric Reveno said. “I don’t want them to dip at all; I want to get where they are.”
Which pretty much sums up the state of the West Coast Conference.
Gonzaga has won nine consecutive regular-season titles, compiling a 116-10 record along the way. The program that long ago outgrew its Cinderella label is the neighborhood bully, and few teams have even dared to challenge that status.
That’s what makes the University of Portland so compelling. Now in their fourth year under Reveno, the Pilots have gone from 4-10 in league play to 3-11 to 9-5 to No. 1 contenders. This year they were picked by league coaches to finish second behind the Zags, and two of those coaches thought they would be champions.
So when the schools met Saturday, it was more than your typical league-opener in mid-January. Portland had an eye-opening 27-point rout of UCLA and wins over Oregon and Minnesota on its résumé.
But the one thing it most wanted proved elusive in a 15-round decision.
“In terms of the program, you have to admit that beating Gonzaga is a milestone that people take notice of,” Reveno said.
If only Matt Bouldin hadn’t had 20 points, nine assists, and no turnovers for Gonzaga. If only Elias Harris hadn’t added 18 points and seven rebounds. If only Portland’s Robin Smeulders could have gone 10 of 10 from the field, instead of the wonderful 9 for 10 he delivered on the way to 24 points.
Sometimes it takes perfection to knock off the champ.
“Personally, I wish every game was like that,” said Portland’s Nik Raivio, who finished with 15 points and six rebounds. “As a competitor, that’s what you want.”
The Mountain View High School graduate was referring to the battle, not the outcome. And his weary body bore the scars.
He was popped in the nose by an errant hand in the first half. He was popped again in the second half, and played several minutes with gauze in one nostril to stop the bleeding.
It was emblematic of something Gonzaga coach Mark Few said after the game.
“We knew it was going to be a hard-fought game, and nothing would come easy,” he said. “For us to hang in there and hold them off, that’s a good win.”
There have been plenty of good wins over the years for Gonzaga. To the point where it would be easy to dismiss them for their metronome-like frequency.
But the excellence of the program should be celebrated. Only three major college programs in history have won more than nine straight league titles, led by UCLA’s dominance of the Pac-10 from 1967-79.
And as the Zags opened their latest title defense with a victory at Portland, one thing was clear. Gonzaga is still the champ.
Greg Jayne is Sports editor of The Columbian. He can be reached at 360-735-4531, or by e-mail at email@example.com. To read his blog, go to columbian.com/weblogs/GregJayne