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Green Bay players, coach look back on ’94 tourney upset

By Greg Bates
Sports Editor

March 17, 1994.

It’s a day that’s distinguished for Green Bay athletics.

It’s a day that Jeff Nordgaard, Gary Grzesk and Dick Bennett still hold vivid memories.

It’s the day that the Green Bay men’s basketball program was catapulted onto the national stage.

It’s the day the No. 12-seeded Fighting Phoenix upset fifth-seeded California and its two future NBA Draft lottery picks in the opening round of the 1994 Division I NCAA Tournament. It is Green Bay’s first and only NCAA Tournament victory.

“I tell everybody, ‘We were the first 12 vs. 5 upset,’” Nordgaard said.

Is that true?

“I don’t know if we were the first, but we were 12/5,” he joked.

Nordgaard and Grzesk sat down earlier this week in the Dick Bennett Gym inside the Kress Events Center with The Press Times to rehash that monumental victory.

With plenty of smiles and laughs, the guys love recalling the moment nearly 29 years ago.

Playing as underdogs
Green Bay won the Mid-Continent Conference regular-season title and also captured the postseason conference title, beating Illinois-Chicago 61-56 on March 8.

With their ticket punched to the NCAA Tournament, the Fighting Phoenix — as they were known back then — had nine days to prepare for their opening tournament game. However, they didn’t know their opponent until four days prior.

Earning the No. 12 seed, Green Bay was paired against No. 5 California in the West Region. The Golden Bears, ranked No. 16 in the final Associated Press Poll, featured one of the best duos in the country in point guard Jason Kidd and forward Lamond Murray. Three months after this game, Kidd was selected No. 2 overall and Murray No. 7 in the NBA Draft.

The opponent would be quite the challenge for Green Bay. But the Phoenix hung its hat on defense where it was ranked No. 3 nationally in fewest points allowed per game.

“We were prepared mentality for whomever we would face,” Green Bay coach Dick Bennett told The Press Times from his Nekoosa, Wis. home. “Then when we learned that we would be facing (Cal), that in essence kind of plugged in as I recall to what we had planned to do. Number one was we were going to get back really fast and build a wall in front of Kidd all the time. So, Gary (Grzesk) would get right in front of him, but whomever was guarding next to him, they would just shrink that gap almost to the point where Kidd had to give it up unless he was going to take on two guys who were prepared and in position. Every time he touched the ball, we were simply not going to let him beat us by getting to the rim or by creating for others. I thought that was probably the strength of our defense in that particular game, to make them set up and not let (Kidd) get anywhere near the penetration that he was used to getting.”
Nordgaard, Green Bay’s leading scorer that season, remembers being excited about the matchup with Cal at the Dee Events Center in Ogden, Utah.

Grzesk, who was a redshirt sophomore just like Nordgaard, felt the same way.

“It was a good draw,” Grzesk said. “I think when we played Virginia Tech, they were very similar to us, half court and then balanced scoring where not only was it the contrast in style, but they really relied on those two guys. If we could take those two guys away — Kidd and Murray — we’d have a good chance.”

Grzesk was the team’s resident defensive stopper. He would be faced with the one-on-one matchup against Kidd, a dynamic ball-handler.

“At the time, he wasn’t a very good outside shooter,” Grzesk said. “He was so quick and so fast with the ball that you almost had to give yourself a little bit of an extra half a step that you would normally give a guy to contest shots. I think the big thing was he missed his first couple of outside shots and that made him a little bit more hesitant to try to shoot those — it certainly didn’t give him any confidence. I think the pace of play at the beginning, we were making shots and we were able to get back and set our defense. Then the second half was almost the exact opposite where we were turning it over, not making shots and it got to be their pace.”

Grzesk was always up for the challenge of eliminating the opponent’s top scorer.

“We had extreme confidence that Gary would be able to do what he does and defend their best perimeter player,” Nordgaard said. “Now this was arguably the best perimeter player in the nation at the time, so it’s a bigger challenge. But we had confidence in him and clearly, he came to play and did the job.”

Bennett said California coach Todd Bozeman respected the Green Bay program, but it was apparent the Golden Bears players didn’t.

“We didn’t look like much,” Bennett said. “We had a public practice on the day before the game and it’s open to the public, and we were never going to impress anybody coming out onto the floor looking at us. But if they watched us, we were pretty purposeful and didn’t leave too many gaps in our game. We sensed early they didn’t respect us, and I think we jumped them fast.”

Green Bay led 16-2 before Cal scored its first field goal at the 10:28 mark. The Phoenix, which held Cal to 25% shooting in the opening half, kept the momentum going into halftime with a 32-23 advantage.

Just five minutes into the second half, Green Bay’s lead ballooned to 18, 47-29. Cal responded with a 22-3 run to go up 51-50 with about 6:40 remaining.

“The first time I rewatched (the game) was probably five or six years ago and I was like, ‘Oh, man. We got up big on them. How did it come to be close?’ Nordgaard said. “And I watched it and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s how it became close.’ I didn’t remember how all that played out.”

With the score at 57-57, Green Bay had the ball to the side of its own basket. John Martinez threw the in-bounds pass to Nordgaard, who hit a leaning jumper from the baseline from about 12 feet with 36 seconds left on the clock.

“We called a baseline out-of-bounds play and it was to get me a look,” Nordgaard said. “We set it up well and got me a good screen, it came from the screener action, maybe, and I got an open shot. I was a mid-range jump shooter back in the day and that was a mid-range shot. I hate that shot nowadays. It’s like, 15-foot baseline jumpers, I’m terrible at them now.

“It was big at the time, and it felt good. I thought it was good. That’s the play call, let’s make it happen.”

Cal called a timeout and set up a play for Kidd. He received a pass, took a couple of dribbles and launched a shot at the top of the key just inside the 3-point arc. Kidd missed it.

“I think they set a ball screen with him and Murray and I was able to get through the screen and get a decent contest up on the jump shot,” Grzesk said. “The ball got knocked around and it went out of bounds and thankfully it was our ball and then we set up our press breaker.”

Martinez, a senior, was fouled with 13.5 seconds remaining and went to the free throw line for a one-and-one; a 75% free throw shooter on the season, he calmly knocked down both shots to put his team up four points.

Nordgaard recalled feeling confident about the outcome.

“Yeah, we won, that’s it,” Nordgaard joked. “That’s what I was feeling. Not reacting in that way, but feeling that way. This is going to happen.”

Green Bay set up its defense to play pretty vanilla. Bennett didn’t want his guys to foul.

Kidd drove the length of the court and missed a runner. After the ball went out of bounds, Cal retained possession with 6.1 seconds on the clock.

Murray missed a 3-pointer and Eric LeDuc pulled down the rebound. He tossed the ball high into the air as the buzzer sounded.

“That’s the transcendent vision that I have from that game is him throwing it up and going like this (arms in the air) and Gary going like this (arms in the air) and guys looking for people to hug, Jim Valvano-style,” Nordgaard said.

“Once Eric got the rebound and threw it up in the air, you knew the game was over and then it was just pure elation,” Grzesk recalled. “I think our fans were in the corner where we were shooting, so I think Jeremy (Ludvigson) and I took a couple of steps towards them but then we wanted to celebrate with our teammates. Eric (LeDuc) was in the middle and then Eric Jackson ran off the bench and jumped in and then it was a big mosh pit with our teammates.”

LeDuc throwing the ball in the air ended up on the “One Shining Moment” video that is shown after the championship game of each NCAA Tournament. It was one of a number of clips featuring Green Bay in the video.

“I show it to my kids every year and that one gives me chills every time,” Nordgaard said. “I have chills right now thinking about it.”

Green Bay pulled off the unthinkable — at least in the minds of those who weren’t aware of Phoenix basketball.

A big reason for the upset was due to the Phoenix’s stifling defense.

Kidd finished 4-for-17 from the field and Murray wasn’t much better at 6-for-21. The two future lottery picks were held to a combined 10-for-38.

“They didn’t get many easy looks, which was partially accountable for their shooting percentage,” Bennett said. “We were ready to play 40 minutes, even with their run, and they probably played 20 minutes. As crazy as it sounds, but that was the difference.”

“That’s really what our team was all about was making it tough for the opponents to score,” Grzesk said. “Even though the second half got to be a little bit faster paced, I think the style of the game really favored us, and our depth. It was in Ogden, Utah with the elevation and we played 10 guys, 11 guys regular minutes, and they had a little bit of a shorter bench and were only playing six or seven guys. I think all those things added up in the end.”

Riding plenty of momentum, two days later, Green Bay was tasked with facing No. 4-seeded Syracuse.

“We thought we had a chance to win against Syracuse,” said Nordgaard, who shot 12-for-20 from the field vs. Cal. “They were not as easy of a matchup as Cal because of the way they play with their length and their zone. It’s not something that we faced. And the way we play, where we’re setting a lot of screens and trying to wear down our man-to-man defense that most teams play against us, they were totally different than that.”

Green Bay ended up losing, 64-59.

But it didn’t diminish the humongous feat Green Bay had accomplished.

“It’s just a culmination of a lot of hard work,” Grzesk said. “It was a dream come true and I think everyone’s goals that year on the team were the same — get to the NCAA tournament, then give yourselves a chance to advance.”

Reminded of the game
Nordgaard and Grzesk get reminded and asked about the Cal game quite a bit even almost three decades later.

When Nordgaard moved back to Green Bay about 12 years following a 14-year career playing professional basketball — mostly overseas — he would get asked about the game all the time.

Now it’s brought up about “five to six times per year,” said Nordgaard, who was a second-round pick of the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1996 NBA Draft.

Grzesk, who is entering his 16th season as the St. Norbert College men’s basketball head coach, also has that game brought up to him quite a bit.

“When I first started coaching, the players that I was recruiting remembered that game, and now it’s been so long that the parents remember the game and the kids have no idea where Jason Kidd went to college or they don’t remember the upset,” Grzesk said. “It’s been a long time, but the memories are still pretty vivid.”

For 79-year-old Bennett, he still looks back on that program-changing win. But it wasn’t the win so much that he cherishes, it’s his players.

“You have a number of teams over your career, some at the high school level, some collegiately, and there may be three or four teams that jump out at you as being very special — and they all have different reasons for being special — but that team was arguably the most together team I’ve ever coached,” said Bennett, who after leaving Green Bay went on to coach Wisconsin to the Final Four in 2000. “They held one another accountable. They had decided on their behavior and commitment off the court and they kind of policed one another. I never worried for a second about any of them.”

During his run in the pros, Nordgaard won some championships but they never lived up to his days in college and scoring an upset win on the biggest stage.

It ranks as the top moment in Nordgaard’s basketball career. Grzesk concurs.

“The best of all time, hands down, not even close,” Grzesk said. “You work your whole life to put yourself in that position and then to do it with some of your best friends, there’s nothing better in my career.”

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