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Gonzaga gains strength to win from its bravest fan

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PITTSBURGH -- Some of the Gonzaga players got the news on the team bus to the arena, the kind of news that puts a basketball game, even one as important as the one they were about to play into some perspective.

Their special fan, an 11-year-old kid named Brandon Chastain, who had so courageously fought cancer right in front of their eyes and had become special to many of the players, died Thursday morning back in Spokane, Washington.

They dedicated their second-round NCAA East Regional game to him before they took the court here against West Virginia. They wore blue ribbons on their jerseys.

And they had the same message dedicated to him in their team huddle: No regrets.

"Having no regrets is a huge thing when you go out on the floor," Gonzaga center Robert Sacre said.

They did their little fan proud. In as impressive a game as there was on the first day of the tournament, the Bulldogs rolled over West Virginia 77-54 to advance to play the winner of Ohio State-Loyola, Md., on Saturday.

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Gonzaga raced to a 40-22 lead at the half and was never challenged. They had four players in double figures, and it was the way they shot the ball that impressed the most. They shot 56-percent from the field, but made 9-of-17 from beyond the 3-point line.

The Mountaineers never knew what hit them.

"[We wanted to] show that Gonzaga wasn't soft," Sacre said.

That's the reputation for some mid-majors, but this team is far from soft. In Sacre, they have a banger inside and there are other guys who will mix it up as well.

"We talked about [how] we wanted to be the toughest team," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "Anytime you face a Coach Huggins team, you know they're going to be tough. We knew we couldn't back down from that."

The Bulldogs were able to overcome a lot to win this one. In addition to being forced to travel across the country, they had to play West Virginia a little over an hour from their campus, even though Gonzaga was a No. 7 seed and West Virginia a 10.

Before the game, the Zags didn't make much of that, but forward Elias Harris said it took him a day to adjust. They flew here Tuesday, and that night Harris said he was wide-awake in the middle of the night.

"I thought it was going to be a long night," he said. "But I adjusted the next day."

There was no jetlag once they took the court. Even with two freshmen guards starting, they looked poised, calm and cool. Those two guards -- Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. -- combined for 27 points and six assists.

If Gonzaga is going to be a factor for a while in this tournament, it will have to come up big again.

"I know what I'm going to get from those guys," Few said. "They've been doing it for 35 games now."

The team got to know Chastain as the season was beginning. He was in the middle of his latest fight against his latest bout of cancer after beating it twice. Cancer took his vision, but that didn't stop his love of the Bulldogs.

Sacre developed a close bond with him over Star Wars.

"That's how we connected," Sacre said. "I just kind of goofed around with him. I'm a big kid."

Chastain attended a game in December and Harris sat with him some on the bench. He gave him a hug. As he remembered that Thursday night, he became a bit emotional.

"He was fighting like crazy," Harris said. "To see a kid fight like that and never give up, I knew any one of us was going to fight to do our jobs."

Few didn't want to delve into the specifics of how the death affected his team. But the players made it known that it did.

"That's just something we've kind of carried with us personally and privately," Few said. "You know, I think we'll just keep it that way. It was a tough morning. Ended up being a great night."

Smile down, Brandon. You Bulldogs are moving on to the next round.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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