The spacious Gonzaga locker room was like a small cage and Bulldogs women’s basketball coach Kelly Graves was the tiger, pacing endlessly late Monday afternoon.
The occasion was the NCAA Tournament Selection Show on ESPN and though he knew the odds were against his team hearing its name called he held out hope it would get invited to the Big Dance.
As teams were announced for the first two brackets, the Greensboro, N.C., and New Orleans regionals, his running commentary went along the lines of: “That’s not good for us,” and “That doesn’t help us,” finally prompting one Bulldog to say, “You’ve got to quit saying that.”
When the Oklahoma City Regional was filled without Gonzaga, Graves said, “We only have three potential spots left. You hold out hope, even though you really know.”
And once the Spokane regional was filled without the Zags, Graves spun on his heels and headed out to face the media.
“We’re disappointed,” he said. “We kind of expected it but we hoped for the best. The last couple of days I had a chance to sit back and be objective. I knew it would be a long shot.
“There was that shock (in the locker room) but there wasn’t dismay.”
He knew the Zags would play. A place is reserved in the Women’s NIT for all conference regular-season champions that did not get into the NCAA tournament.
Several hours later the Bulldogs (24-8) found out they would be at home for a first-round game Thursday night against UC-Davis (19-10) and play at Colorado (16-14) on Monday if they win. Thursday’s game will take place at 7 p.m.
Gonzaga was relegated to the secondary tournament because they lost to San Diego in the championship game of the West Coast Conference tournament, which was played on the Toreros’ home court.
“When you end up losing like we did, after a great regular season … we had our chance,” Graves said. “We’re a young team; our key players are freshmen and sophomores; we’ll make this a positive. We’re still playing and we still have a chance to improve.”
In the past four seasons, GU has gone 51-5 in the WCC, including 13-1 this season, but only won the league tournament last year for their only appearance in the NCAA tournament. In 2005 they also lost the title game to the host school, Santa Clara.
“It’s disappointing to play a team on their home court, especially one that has nothing to lose,” Graves said. “It doesn’t take anything away from our great season so far. I say so far because I expect us to do well in the NIT.”
GU was snubbed in 2005 despite a 28-3 record, the main reasons a weak pre-conference schedule and a weak league.
The WCC is about 10 spots higher in the power rankings, sitting between 8 and 10, and Graves has really beefed up the schedule.
This season the Zags played six teams that were top-50 and NCAA tournament teams a year ago, Tennessee, Purdue, Arizona State, Washington, Marquette and Montana. The Bulldogs beat the last three and lost to Purdue in the final seconds. Purdue, Montana, Tennessee and ASU are in the NCAA tournament.
In making his case, Graves said, “We went 15-2 in the eighth toughest conference in the country, with a point margin of 16-plus, and our strength of schedule is a lot tougher. We finished strong; we were 16-2 in our last 18 and 18-2 when you take out our injuries.”
With WCC player of the pear Heather Bowman, who averaged 20 points and 8.5 rebounds, sidelined with a broken hand, GU went 2-3, including the Purdue loss. Starting forward and second-leading rebounder Vivian Friesen missed the first seven games with a broken finger.
“Our conference is still trying to get that recognition it deserves,” Graves said.
More costly than the conference and top-50 losses were defeats to Portland State, UC-Riverside and Utah Valley State.
“We gave some games away,” he said. “We just have to take care of business. We turned the corner, we beat Marquette and Washington, but who knew they would have sub-par seasons? The Purdue game was huge. (But) we didn’t get that top-50 win.
“We don’t look at this as disappointing, we look at it as an opportunity. We want to make this as positive of an opportunity as we can. This is another chance to compete, another chance to play together. Any experience is good.”
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.