By Dave Morrison
Register-Herald Sports Writer
Zane Gilliard will walk into the Municipal Auditorium sometime today, definitely tomorrow, and the memories will come flooding back.
It will be the former Mountain State All-American shooting guard’s first trip to Kansas City — and Municipal Auditorium — since walking off as a national champion in 2004.
Gilliard, who played overseas for a few years after his career at MSU, is now a graduate assistant with the Cougars.
MSU opens NAIA Tournament play against Mid-American Nazarene at 7:15 p.m. Eastern Thursday. MSU arrived in Kansas City Monday evening.
“I’ve heard things have changed in Kansas City since the last time I was there,” said Gilliard, a South Carolina native with the distinct twang to prove it. “I guess the first thing I’ll think about was just winning it all. And not winning it all.”
Gilliard’s first trip to Kansas City was monumental. It was the first time MSU made it to the national championship. But it ended in heartbreak, as MSU fell to Concordia (Calif.) in overtime.
“You just kind of look around and wonder what-if, but we knew we had the nucleus coming back and we knew we wanted to see (Concordia) again,” Gilliard said. “Not getting a chance to see them again, in that building, just wouldn’t have been right.”
Mountain State, led by eventual national player of the year Zach Moss and wings Gilliard and Beckley native Kortaa Hall, steamrolled through the 2004 season, en route to a 33-1 record and a return trip to the national championship. Gilliard averaged 15.9 points and had 129 3-pointers.
Concordia was sitting directly across from the Cougars on the other side of the bracket.
The stage was set.
MSU struggled early before handling Reinhart, Ga., 79-68, a game in which Gilliard had 16 points.
He added 18 to Zach Moss’ 38-point tour de force in a second-round drubbing of Houston Baptist.
Hall took his turn in the spotlight in a dramatic 87-84 win over Oklahoma Baptist, with a 12-foot jumper and a pair of free throws to send MSU to the Final Four.
That meant it was Georgetown time!
Happy Osborne’s Georgetown Tigers had long been a staple of the tournament. And his “It’s Georgetown Time!” speech to his players in the Tigers’ lockerroom that was featured in an NAIA documentary was not lost on Gilliard, who did a dead-on impersonation.
In the elevator. On the bus.
The only thing that might have topped the talent on the team were the comedians.
“I’m not even close,” Gilliard said. “Zach was the comedian.”
MSU went on to drub Georgetown 96-77 and, as fate would have it, Concordia won out on the other side.
“No way we were losing that game,” Gilliard said. “Just to have a chance to fix what had happened the year before, that was huge to all of us. We all knew we were winning that game.”
And they went out way early, grabbing a double-digit lead.
Concordia, being a national champion, came back.
But Gilliard made two free throws to make it 73-70 and Eddie Starks ended it with a free throw as MSU had its first — and to date only — national title.
“I can’t wait to get back in that building,” Gilliard said. “I never thought much about going back until I came back here to Beckley. I hope our guys can play the way they are capable. I know they have the talent.”
All told, Gilliard was 9-1 in Municipal.
“Zane is one of the greatest shooters we ever had at Mountain State,” MSU coach Bob Bolen said. “And he has done a great job in all aspects of his role as a graduate assistant. He lives in the (basketball) house with the guys. None of the players, not one of the 15, has a car. He makes sure they get to Wal-Mart. He is willing to work. He always wants to know what to do next. He knows the game and with his love of the game and his work ethic, he can go places.”
Gilliard went on to play overseas.
He led the top league in Norway (BLNO) in scoring (29.7) and was second in a league in Germany (28.5 points).
“But I’ll always remember our run at Mountain State, and those guys,” Gilliard said. “I’m hoping we can win another one this year.”