No. 11 seed Gonzaga ready for top-seeded Stanford

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

accomplish.

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

picture.”

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

tournament run.

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

history.

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

tournament.”