Gonzaga-Texas A&M Preview
When Gary Blair took Texas A&M to Las Vegas in December, the folksy Aggies coach brought back a few memories of the trip.
He remembers coming out behind at the tables. His team picked up two important wins. And he got a firsthand look at his opponent on Monday night in the second-round of the NCAA women's tournament.
``Gonzaga would finish in the top four in any BCS conference in the country,'' Blair said on Sunday. ``That's how good they are and how much respect I have for them, their personnel and their coach.''
The second-seeded Aggies (26-7) get to see just how different the No. 7 seed Bulldogs are when the pair meet on Monday night with a trip to the regional semifinals in Sacramento on the line.
Three months ago in the desert, the Aggies were clearly the better team. They hounded the Bulldogs (28-4) for 30 dominant minutes, making star Gonzaga guard Courtney Vandersloot look ordinary; one of only two times this season the national leader in assists committed more turnovers than assists. Only a late rally by Gonzaga made the 80-76 final score as respectable as it was.
The Bulldogs don't debate that an awful first half was the reason they arrived at that outcome. But they contend that final 10 minutes against the Aggies was a turning point in their season.
No longer would Gonzaga just be happy to be playing a team like Texas A&M. Cutting a 20-point lead to two in the closing moments gave the Bulldogs confidence they lacked facing powers Baylor and Stanford that routed Gonzaga earlier in the season.
Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that since losing to the Aggies - albeit against mostly lesser competition - the Zags haven't lost, a string of 19 straight victories.
``I think we realized at this point we had nothing to lose and we were going to come out and just play hard,'' Vandersloot said. ``We didn't play our best basketball down in Vegas and that second half we just decided 'let's fight.' Once we started clicking it gave us the confidence that we can play with teams of this caliber and that was the time we showed it to ourselves that we can compete.''
While three months have passed since the Aggies and Bulldogs met, many aspects are the same. Vandersloot - who Blair aptly compared to former Gonzaga men's star John Stockton - remains the engine of the Zags offense, making up for a poor shooting night with 15 assists in the Bulldogs 82-76 first-round victory over North Carolina.
And Tanisha Smith, who finished an assist shy of just the 12th triple-double in NCAA tournament history in A&M's 84-53 first-round win over Portland State, remains the Aggies most versatile star on a team filled with balance. Smith had a game-high 20 points in the first meeting.
``They have improved but we are still going to come out and play them the way we played them the first time, but even better because both teams have had 15 to 18 games since,'' Smith said. ``We are going to play with intensity and that is going to be key for us.''
That intensity was missing in the opening minutes against Portland State when the 15th-seeded Vikings flustered the Aggies and even held a 28-27 lead late in the first half. Texas A&M's superior talent overwhelmed Portland State from there, but the Aggies understand they might not be able to get away with a similar lull against Gonzaga, especially with what should be a partisan Bulldogs crowd.
``It's going to be like us playing on the road again, like it was at the Big 12 tournament,'' Blair said. ``They've been here two years in a row and it's a great home court advantage.''
A year ago, the Bulldogs were in this situation as a No. 12 seed after pulling a first-round upset of Xavier - the first tournament victory in school history - and made Pittsburgh sweat until the closing minutes before falling 65-60 to the Panthers.
They're again in the role of underdogs on Monday. But this Bulldogs team is deeper, bringing the likes of Katelan Redmon off the bench. Redmon led Gonzaga with 18 points against North Carolina.
And they have the belief they belong with the likes of Texas A&M.
``I don't know if the expectations are different. They're the two-seed and we're the underdog. But I think this team is different in that we're a lot more confident,'' Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves said. ``Last year at this time, because of this tournament we gained a ton of confidence and came back this year much better in that regard.''