Before every season, Kelly Graves tries to find a theme to help
define the year for Gonzaga. It can be a rallying cry or just a
general picture of what Gonzaga’s coach believes the Bulldogs can
When he saw that not only would Gonzaga be hosting first- and
second-round games in the NCAA tournament this year, but the
regional was also being played in the Bulldogs’ home town, Graves
latched on to what Southwest Missouri State – now Missouri State –
accomplished a decade ago as the last team from outside the six
major conferences to reach the women’s Final Four.
”I just thought that with the regional being in Spokane – I had
no idea we would be sent there, but I knew that it was a
possibility and at least early in the year it was something I could
play on,” Graves said. ”And (I) just tried to paint the
Sometime Graves’ revision of what Jackie Stiles did in leading
Missouri State to the Final Four in 2001 – by winning a regional
held in Spokane – became ad nauseam for his players. Courtney
Vandersloot thinks it’s numbering about 10 the times that Graves
has recited a version of the story.
”I think the last time I said, ‘Coach, we know the story. We’re
ready for this. You don’t need to tell it again”’ Gonzaga forward
Katelan Redmon said.
Whether it proved motivating or not, the Bulldogs (31-4) will
get their chance to match what Stiles did a decade ago when
11th-seeded Gonzaga faces top-seeded Stanford (32-2) in the Spokane
Regional final on Monday night.
In the last 20 years, only four different schools – Missouri
State, Old Dominion, Louisiana Tech and Western Kentucky – from
outside the six-conference power belt of college sports have
reached the Final Four. For the Bulldogs to make a little history,
they’ll need to take down the powers of the West Coast, as Stanford
tries for a fourth straight Final Four trip and 10th overall.
”I wouldn’t say that we’re even the favorite to win here
tomorrow. We’re playing in Spokane, Gonzaga’s here, they’re a
wonderful team, they’re playing in their city and it’s a really
great environment to play in,” Stanford’s Nnemkadi Ogwumike said.
”And honestly, I think that coach put it best, people are going to
give us their best game no matter what. It doesn’t matter, the
numbers do not matter.”
Gonzaga is already the lowest seed in tournament history to
reach the Elite Eight, but its success comes with the asterisk of
playing No. 6 seed Iowa and third-seeded UCLA on its home floor
across town, before dispatching seventh-seeded Louisville 76-69 in
the regional semifinals on Saturday night.
It’s been the source of some criticism that Gonzaga could reach
the Final Four without leaving town. Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer
said Sunday the NCAA should look into making sure this situation
doesn’t occur again.
”Probably in fairness to teams … maybe something that the
NCAA might look at doing is if you’re hosting a regional – which I
know officially (Gonzaga’s) not – that maybe you can’t host a first
and second round, too. Just so that you don’t get four home games
in a row,” VanDerveer said.
VanDerveer also accidentally referred to Vandersloot as
”Stephanie” on Sunday, even if the country has come to know all
about the Bulldogs’ spunky point guard during her mesmerizing
Vandersloot is averaging 30.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 10.3
assists in the Bulldogs’ three tournament wins, including 29 points
in the victory over Louisville, despite going more than 9 minutes
of the second half without scoring. Her scoring average through
three games ranks as the third-highest in NCAA tournament
She’s the focal point – and the one Graves compares to Stiles’
tournament 10 years ago – but the Bulldogs know they’ll need more
than just Vandersloot to hang with the Cardinal, who have won 26
straight since an overtime loss at Tennessee in December.
”We have really found our roles and we’re really clicking
really well together right now,” Redmon said.
There is also familiarity between the schools, with Monday being
the third meeting in the last two seasons. Stanford is the only
team to beat Gonzaga on its home floor in the last two seasons,
handing the Bulldogs an 84-78 loss back in November.
Jeanette Pohlen was the key that night for Stanford with 19
points, but has struggled since the start of the Pac-10 tournament.
In her last five games, Pohlen – the Pac-10 player of the year –
has scored in double figures just once and is shooting only 26
percent. She missed eight of nine shots in Stanford’s 72-65
regional semifinal win over North Carolina.
Both teams admit there isn’t a lot to take from the meeting back
in November, except for a little base knowledge. At the time,
Chiney Ogwumike was playing only the third game of her career and,
along with her sister, had yet to show her forceful rebounding
prowess on the interior.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs were in a stretch of learning how to
play without two key starters from a year ago and hadn’t seen the
emergence of forward Kayla Standish or learned how others would
play off of Vandersloot. The loss to the Cardinal was part of a 2-3
start by Gonzaga.
”At that time, we were struggling. Elite Eight was a long way
away,” Graves said.
They’re 29-1 since.
”We knew that we had the ability, we had the team, we had all
the pieces, we had the experience,” Vandersloot said. ”We knew
that we could, if everything went right and we were playing as well
as we knew we could be, that we could make some noise in the