When Gonzaga guard Nigel Williams-Goss unloaded a game of superlatives at San Francisco Jan. 5, it got some Zag fans to wondering: Might they have just witnessed the best individual performance in school history?
Tough to say. You’d probably have to apply some serious contemporary analytics to it, as well as to the competition for that title, and sad to say, that’s beyond the grasp of this blog. Besides, I think it’s only fair to consider things like the fact the three-point shot wasn’t born until 1986-87; the strength of the opponent and perhaps even of that particular Gonzaga team. (In other words, where’s a Sagarin rating when the Frank Burgess era needed one?)
But it’s a hoot to walk down memory lane and assess the logical candidates for an honor for which there is no one correct answer. (And apologies for taking so long to pull this together. Even old decrepit, retired sportswriters get waylaid by other things.)
Not having been around the Gonzaga program until the last couple of years of the 20th century, I can’t vouch definitively for some of GU’s supreme individual games before then. So naturally, I started with the school’s top-10 list in individual game scoring.
Inevitably, that begins with Frank Burgess, whose 52-point game against Cal-Davis in 1961 tops the Gonzaga list. Burgess, a 6-1 Air Force vet from Eudora, Ark., “could thread that net from anyplace,” his coach, Hank Anderson, once told me.
I tracked down Jerry Vermillion, the GU career rebounding leader of the early 1950s, on the Washington coast, and he offered this recollection of Burgess: “He had great moves before he shot. He’d fake it with two hands, sometimes reach through the two hands of other people, and let it go.”
Lunching once with Burgess in Tacoma, where GU’s leading career scorer became a U.S. District Court judge, Vermillion heard this story: Burgess, post-Gonzaga, toured for a time with a Harlem Globetrotters opposition team, and foisted one of his patented fake moves on his man.
“Man, what are you doing?” his Trotter counterpart protested. “We’re supposed to be putting on a show here.”
It’s entirely possible that Burgess’ 52-point night wasn’t his most sterling in a Zag uniform. UC-Davis, after all, was NCAA Division II until 2004, and it had a 4-17 record in that 1960-61 season when Burgess lit it up in a 123-79 victory.
On the other hand, his 42-point game against Seattle U. in 1960, tied for eighth on the Gonzaga list, bears more scrutiny. It came in the season finale against a 16-10 SU team that was frequently making the NCAA tournament in that era (it didn’t that year) and was headed by future pro Eddie Miles.
(A footnote on Burgess: When he led the nation in scoring in 1961, he succeeded a guy who had owned that title three straight years: Oscar Robertson.)
No. 2 on the Zag individual game scoring list was the 50 rung up by Jean Claude Lefebvre in 1958 against Whitworth. Lefebvre was the 7-3, 340-pound Frenchman who wore size-22 sneakers and spent two seasons with Gonzaga.
Anderson, for the book “Bravehearts,” was candid about Lefebvre when I asked him if the big guy was at all skilled. “No,” he said. “I would say he had a real good attitude and was willing to work.”
Vermillion, who holds the GU career rebounding lead by a prodigious 691 boards, had a 44-point game against Whitman in 1953. Alas, he points out, the Zags lost the game.
Vermillion, 6-4, was blessed with strong arms and shoulders and exceptional length. He says his standing jump rose to 13 inches above the rim. He would routinely tap the ball in for several points a game, a practice he says was refined when Anderson would have the Zags play volleyball for 2-3 weeks before the year’s workouts began.
A generation ago, Zags guard Jim McPhee cracked the GU top-10 scoring list for a game by raining 42 points on Loyola Marymount twice within eight days of 1990. McPhee is the highest-scoring Gonzaga player in the WCC era with 2,015 points, but his twin 42s had the advantage of Loyola’s wacko, end-to-end style then under Paul Westhead. One of those McPhee outbursts was in a 144-100 loss.
For GU fans of recent vintage, there was Kyle Wiltjer’s 45 points, No. 3 on the school list, on a 15-for-22 shooting inferno at Pacific two years ago. That was an unremarkable 12-19 Tigers team going nowhere, but it was the highest-scoring game by a Gonzaga player since Burgess’ 52 some 54 years earlier.
Personally, without the long, sharp perspective of history, I’d lobby for one of Adam Morrison’s efforts, probably during the blazing pre-conference bender he went on in 2005-06. Twice, recall, he went for 43 points -- first, in a triple-overtime victory in the semifinals of the Maui Invitational, when he went 14 of 28 against Michigan State. That’s the best game I ever covered, two teams going toe-to-toe without any real pressure or do-or-die ramifications.
You could easily make a case Morrison’s 43-point explosion mere days later at Washington was the school’s best, if Gonzaga hadn’t lost the game, 99-95, GU’s only defeat to the UW in the past 11 meetings. In fact, it might be No. 1 anyway; Morrison went 18 for 29 from the field against a quality, Brandon Roy-led Husky team that like the Zags, narrowly missed advancing past the Sweet 16 in ’06.
Later that season, Morrison’s 44 at Loyola Marymount vaulted him to a tie for fourth on the GU list. But the numbers are antiseptic against the rich lore of the swath he cut that season and the color he brought to the game.
Morrison scored but seven points in the first half that February Saturday at LMU. Then he went crazy for 37 in the second half, pointing frenetically at the Lions’ student section after dropping another trey.
Here’s how Robyn Norwood wrote it in the LA Times:
“With the aura of a rock star and the soul of a shooter, Gonzaga’s Adam Morrison turned away what would have been Loyola Marymount’s biggest victory since the end of the Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble era Saturday.”
Norwood described Morrison’s “long, shaggy hair and thin mustache” on a day in which he drained eight of 10 three-point shots in the second half and finished 14 of 20. She quoted Morrison:
“I played horrible the first half. Then I went out there and got a wide-open three to start the second half and it went down. Then the second one went down. End of story from there.”
To this tableau, Williams-Goss added his statistically superb game -- paradoxically, after he had been dogged by the flu: 36 points on 12-of-15 shooting, 11 rebounds and six assists. It came against a competitive if not stellar USF team.
Great game, contributing to a good debate.