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Close but … for Zag women

Gonzaga got a welcome to Big East basketball but the Bulldogs didn't back down in a hard fought, physical game with 15th-ranked Pittsburgh. Ultimately their dream of a berth in the Sweet 16 at the Oklahoma City regional was shatted, 65-60.

Read below for the unedited game story.

SEATTLE – The Gonzaga Bulldogs were so close to Oklahoma City they could feel the dust on their shoes.

But Pittsburgh executed just a little better down the stretch of a women’s basketball street brawl inside Hec Edmundson Pavilion to steal a trip to the Sweet 16 out of their hands.

All-American candidate Shavonte Zellous scored 22 of her 24 points in the second half to carry fourth-seeded and 15th-ranked Pittsburgh past 12th-seeded Gonzaga 65-60 Monday night in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

“We set high goals for our program before the season started,” Bulldogs coach Kelly Graves said. “We wanted to get to the Sweet 16. … We won our first NCAA Tournament game … and we came close to winning a second. I’m just proud of the way the kids executed. That’s the way it happens in life.

Sometimes the ball just doesn’t bounce your way and it didn’t down the stretch.”

There were 16 lead changes, 14 ties and offsetting – but meaningless – technical fouls early in the second off.

Gonzaga’s last lead was 58-57 on a 17-foot jump shot by Vivian Frieson with 2:24 remaining.  Zellous followed with a miss but then GU point guard Courtney Vandersloot had back-to-back turnovers against a 3-2 zone the Panthers broke out for the final minutes. Zellous cashed in both miscues to lead 61-58 with 52 seconds left.

“Those plays, I haven’t stopped running through my head since the game finished,” said Vandersloot, who had a generally outstanding game with 18 points, seven assists, five steals and five rebounds. “It is something I should have been prepared for. My team was counting on me to make those plays.”

Bowman, who had 15 points, scored for GU (27-7) and then the Panthers (25-7) made a turnover, throwing the ball right to Janelle Bekkering, who raced down court only to get called for traveling when she was preparing to challenge Zellous at the basket.

“I was just thinking score,” Bekkering said. “I had a one-on-one opportunity. I jump stopped and slipped.”

Zellous made two free throws for a 63-60 lead with 15 seconds left but the Bulldogs got the shot they wanted, a Bekkering 3-pointer attempt from the left corner with 5 seconds remaining.

“I thought Janelle was going to knock it down,” Graves said. “We wanted to go to her. There’s nobody else that we trust as much as her for that shot. That’s her spot.”

Ultimately the difference was that zone.

“We don’t use a zone defense often,” Pittsburgh coach Agnus Berenato said. “We thought No. 21 (Vandersloot) was doing a great job. It seemed like she wasn’t just scoring two every time she come down the floor, but she was scoring two-plus-one. She was like the Energizer Bunny.”

Zellous was every bit as good, though the Bulldogs didn’t make it easy. She only made 6 of 21 shots and missed the only two free throws in the game but with the outcome in doubt she scored nine points in the last 3:30.

“Both teams did a really good job on the defensive end,” Zellous said. “Gonzaga did a great job mixing it up on us. I think that we did a great job of switching things up on them.”

She started her stretch run with a 3 to tie the game right after Vandersloot had blown through the defense for a layup that prompted the defensive switch.

“Zellous is a great, great player, a phenomenal player,” Vandersloot said. “You can’t stop a player like that. She’s going to get her points. We wanted to contain her as much as possible.”

The fierce, physical defensive struggle produced 36 percent shooting by Gonzaga, which had 10 shots blocked, and 34 by Pittsburgh and the teams combined for 31 fouls. The Bulldogs made all 16 of their free throws, the Panthers made 20 of 22. Coming into the tournament only nine teams had been perfect from the line in a NCAA Tournament game.

“We don’t play that way in our conference,” Graves said. “It was nice to see our team adjust to that.”

It took the Bulldogs some time to adjust to the size and strength of the third-place team out of the rugged Big East Conference.

“They’re all long and athletic and they can jump,” Vandersloot said. “That’s an adjustment I had to make, especially in the first half trying to shoot over them. It kind of changed my shot a little bit. We had to make adjustments in the second half.”

It was a strange first half that ended with two teams that average 75 points apiece tied at 24.

Gonzaga had a scoring drought of 6-minutes, 36-seconds and had one basket in a 10-minute span yet its 14-12 lead only grew to a 22-16 deficit.

The drought seemed strange considering the way the game started. After Zellous opened the scoring, GU scored nine straight, five from Jami Schaefer, who finished with 10, and four from Vandersloot, which coincided with Zellous picking up her second foul at the 14:47 mark. But starting with back-to-back 3’s, Pittsburgh quickly took a 10-9 lead.

Vandersloot ended Gonzaga’s dry spell with a steal and layup at 1:33 and after a Pitt basket the Bulldogs scored six points in the last minute to forge the tie.

 The Bulldogs’ finishing flourish saved them from a half when they appeared to be unraveling, setting up a wild but disappointing finish.

“I think we’re going to learn a lot from this,” Vandersloot said. “We know how exciting it feels to win when not a lot of the world is expecting us to. We also know what it feels like to lose when we didn’t expect to. It’s been a great experience. I think it’s going to help us a lot.”

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