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Gonzaga’s Jordan Mathews finds tournament glory after ‘hardest decision of my life’

Guard who transferred for final year helps send Zags to first Final Four

With the “hardest decision of my life” paying off, senior guard Jordan Mathews and Gonzaga are headed to the school’s first Final Four.

Mathews scored 11 points in the Zags’ 83-59 victory against Xavier on Saturday in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament in San Jose, California. Mathews sent the Zags to the matchup with Xavier when he nailed the game-winning 3-pointer Thursday in a 61-58 win against pesky West Virginia in the Sweet 16.

Mathews played at Cal the previous three years before exercising the ability to transfer to another school for his senior year after earning his bachelor’s degree.

“This season has been such a great season just being around these guys every day,” Mathews told The Undefeated on Saturday. “It’s been nothing short of amazing. You go to practice and you get to see so many different personalities and hang out with them. It was different, it was difficult leaving Cal, but, I mean, I’m wearing the hat now; it paid off.”

On Thursday, Mathews walked off the SAP Center floor feeling quite triumphant knowing that the pain that came from leaving his old school a mere 47 miles away was well worth it after his big shot.

“Did I want to come back and deal with some stuff that I didn’t really want to deal with or go somewhere else and roll the dice? I rolled the dice. It’s been a good trade-off, but it’s been hard. I loved Cal,” Mathews told The Undefeated.

The sharpshooting Mathews averaged 13.5 points as a junior for the Golden Bears during the 2015-16 season, and his team-high 89 3-pointers were 28 more than anyone else on the roster. Mathews was expected to be one of Cal’s key scorers alongside NBA prospects Ivan Rabb and Jabari Bird entering the 2016-17 season. Mathews, however, yearned for a change after not seeing eye to eye with coach Cuonzo Martin.

With a Cal bachelor’s degree, Mathews was eligible to transfer with a year of eligibility left to another school that offered a master’s program not found at the player’s previous institution. After lots of stressful deliberating, he announced May 31, 2016, that he would be transferring from Cal.

“It was so hard. It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve had to do. In public, I’ll say it’s easy. But it was hard. I didn’t want to leave. I went to coach’s office four times,” Mathews said.

It was one thing for Mathews to decide to transfer and another to actually be eligible to do it.

To graduate from Cal, Mathews had to complete a grueling summer school schedule that included passing six classes in 12 weeks. A school counselor told Mathews that such a challenging task was impossible and had not been previously accomplished. With his loved ones cheering him on, he defied the odds, grinded and proudly completed his degree in legal studies.

“The school work was really hard,” Mathews said. “If I didn’t have my parents, my grandma and my girlfriend, I don’t think I would’ve made it. I had six classes in 12 weeks. It was tough. Six classes, 12 weeks, 8 [in the morning] to 8 [at night] Monday through Friday.

“I’m going to walk in May. I got to come back. I deserve to walk. Give me that. Yeah! But I have the diploma at home. It’s good to have that.”

Free to transfer with his degree in hand, Mathews considered Gonzaga and North Carolina State. Gonzaga had the talent to compete to be a title contender while North Carolina State was hopeful to make the NCAA tournament. Also aiding Gonzaga’s hopes was that Mathews’ father, Phil, was extremely close to Zags assistant coach Donny Daniels. They worked together in the 1980s as assistants at Cal State-Fullerton.

Gonzaga coach Mark Few also offered a strong sales pitch.

“You got a chance to be a part of a team that is really connected and cares about each other,” Few told The Undefeated. “You’re going to feel it in the locker room. You’re going to have a chance to advance to the Final Four. If you come join this thing, we have some really good players. You might have to make some sacrifices, but we also need a guy who can get buckets like you.”

Mathews announced on Twitter on June 23, 2016, that he was signing with the Zags. A backlash from disappointed Cal fans ensued on social media.

“It happens all the time on my Instagram and my Twitter. A lot of them are very, very nice and wish me the best. But some on Facebook and Instagram they’re like, ‘You suck,’ ” Mathews said.

Mathews made a Gonzaga-high 74 3-pointers this season and earned All-West Coast Conference honorable mention honors. The 6-foot-3 guard also was challenged off the court with attending the first of a two-year online master’s program at Gonzaga that he described as “pretty tough.” Few had to allow Mathews to leave practice early from time to time to get his schoolwork done.

“Jordan loaded up in the fall like a seven-day bang, bang, bang,” Few said. “Then on the weekends they go eight hours. He had several of those classes that were like that. They were front-loaded. We actually had him volunteering and doing community stuff because we didn’t have much going in November, December. It amped up again in the spring and he has had to bust it through.”

Mathews and the Bulldogs enter the Final Four with a dominant 36-1 record. Meanwhile, California had a disappointing season in which it didn’t make the NCAA tournament and lost in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament to mid-major Cal State-Bakersfield. Martin has since departed Cal for Missouri to be the head coach and Rabb has left for the NBA with no plans to return for his final two years.

Mathews was sorry to see his old Cal mates struggle, but he didn’t believe he was to blame.

“I watched them all the time,” Mathews said. “Kameron Rooks is one of my best friends. Roger [Moute a Bidias]. Jabari Bird. [Ivan] Rabb. I watched a lot of games of those guys. The Dillon Brooks 3 [in a loss to Oregon] at Cal hurt a lot. So when they didn’t make it, it stung them a little bit.

“I didn’t feel guilty. I’m not playing. That’s on them. I felt sad for them.”

Mathews struggled with his shot for much of the night Thursday against the Mountaineers and was on the bench with four fouls late in the game. Even so, he confidently told his teammates that if there was an opportunity for him to take a 3-pointer to make sure they send him the ball.

“I told them, the guys, that if you come off [a screen] and you see me, I’m going to put that home,” Mathews said. “I’m going to do that. They had faith in me.”

Mathews re-entered the game against West Virginia with Gonzaga down 58-57 with 1:08 remaining. After a block by Gonzaga’s Josh Perkins four seconds later, teammate Nigel Williams-Goss snatched the ball and fired it down the floor to an open Mathews behind the 3-point line. With a West Virginia defender obstructing his view, Mathews fired up a trey that he didn’t have confidence in.

But after hearing a roar from the Gonzaga crowd, Mathews knew he nailed what would be a game-winning 3-pointer to push West Virginia down 60-58 with 59 seconds left and will forever be remembered by his school. Mathews celebrated by turning to the Zags faithful and his teammates on the bench by mean mugging them as if to say, “I told you so.” Gonzaga held on defensively to live another day.

“I didn’t see it because I was fading away. I just heard everybody’s reaction down the court. I’m glad it went in,” Mathews said.

Transferring. Tough school work. Leaving the Bay Area for Spokane, Washington. Adjusting to a third coach in his college career. Trying to fit in within a short amount of time with a college basketball power with big title dreams. No, it wasn’t easy for Mathews to get to the point of his storied 3-pointer.

But all the pain was worth Mathews’ one shining moment with perhaps a title on the horizon, too.

“It’s part of the dream, making a big shot in March Madness. Going deep in the tournament. What else could you ask for? There have been down times, but the good are outweighing the bad easily,” Mathews said.


Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.