Sports

Zags look to show they belong

Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves and his Bulldogs women face some stern tests this weekend.  (File)
Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves and his Bulldogs women face some stern tests this weekend. (File)

Finals weeks may be almost over, but the tests aren’t.

Starting with No. 7 Duke at No. 2 Stanford Tuesday night, there are some pretty impressive women’s basketball matchups before Christmas. No. 3 Tennessee treks across the country to face Stanford on Saturday.

But for one gathering, nothing is as stellar as putting No. 6 Baylor, No. 13 Texas A&M and No. 14 Arizona State in Las Vegas with little ol’ Gonzaga.

“It’s definitely a tournament everybody’s going to be watching,” Bulldogs coach Kelly Graves said. “We obviously want to perform well because of that.”

Gonzaga plays Baylor on Saturday and A&M on Sunday at the Holiday Hoops Classic. Both Arizona State games are at 6:30 and Gonzaga plays at 8:45. All games are on ESPNU.

“This is really our last opportunity to get that quality win for our (NCAA) tournament resume,” Graves said. “We’re not thinking about playing them close. We’re thinking about winning them. My guess is they don’t look at how close you play teams. In the end they look at who you played and who you beat.

“It’s an opportunity to test where we are and a chance to showcase talent we do have. We have a couple of players mentioned with the best in the country and this is a chance to show that.”

Games like this are how Graves lands players such as Heather Bowman and Courtney Vandersloot, who get national attention despite playing outside of the spotlight.

“I recruit players that want to play these kinds of games,” he said. “Every one of our players at the top of the rotation was offered from BSC schools. That’s used against us … but I tell them, ‘Look who we play.’ That’s part of the reason they do come here. We have good players. I want them to see what they can do.”

Baylor offers a unique challenge in 6-foot-8 freshman phenom Brittney Griner.

“Everybody has to play a role in slowing her down,” Graves said. “It can’t be just one player, it can’t even be just two. Everybody has to help, because she’s such a unique talent. It’s going to have to be a team effort.

“We already had some experience, unfortunately it wasn’t all that positive, playing great post players with that Stanford team. At least it’s not going to be something that’s brand new to us. But there’s no question she’s something else. (And) she’s not a one-person team. They have a lot of great talent. Melissa Jones is such a great shooter, you can’t sag off her.”

He hopes his long wings, posts that like to face the basket and venture outside, and a great point guard can turn some of the matchups into Gonzaga’s favor.

Meanwhile, A&M presents a different challenge because of its relentless defense. The Aggies started the season unranked after losing three senior starters from last year’s team that lost to ASU in the Sweet 16.

ASU coach Charli Turner Thorn echoed Graves about the opportunity “to show us exactly where we’re at” and the impact of Griner.

Although Thorn wasn’t sure the future of women’s basketball was above the rim, she said Griner brings that element that people want to see.

“She’s great for the game,” Thorn said. “She’s a very talented player.”

She compared Griner to Candace Parker and Maya Moore as far as bringing national attention to the game.

The Sun Devils are rolling along at 7-1 with a game tonight, despite losing six seniors and leading scorer Dymond Simon to a preseason knee injury off of last year’s Elite Eight team.

Graves thinks his Bulldogs fit in with this group.

“We believe we belong,” he said. “The bottom line is we won’t know until we play them. I’d like to think we belong. I’m not going to shy away. I’m not going to change. Ultimately, we need some of these victories. We don’t get those top 50 games. We need someone in our conference to step up and get in that upper echelon.”

On tap

Washington State wraps up its preseason schedule by playing San Francisco in Kennewick on Saturday – a regionally televised doubleheader with the men’s team – and going to Nevada on Tuesday. Cougars coach June Daugherty said a lot of fans asked for a chance to see the Cougars without having to travel so far and with the students finishing up finals this week and leaving for Christmas break it seemed like a good idea.

The women’s game tips off at 1:35 (on KHQ and FSN) and the men play Portland State at 4:30 (FSN).

Short-handed Idaho is off all week before playing at Long Beach on Sunday. A decision is expected later this week on the status of starters Yinka Olorunnife and Charlotte Otero, who were suspended for conduct detrimental to the team and did not travel for Sunday’s game at Montana. … Cal Poly is at Eastern on Monday and then the Eagles finish their preconference schedule by going to Irvine (Calif.) on Saturday and Fullerton (Calif.) on Monday.

Tip-ins

Gonzaga junior Vandersloot, who became the 14th member of the Bulldogs’ 1,000-point club last game, continues to lead the nation in assists at 9.7 per game and is second in steals at 4.5. … Washington State freshman Kiki Moore is fourth in steals at 4.2 and Weber State senior Tonya Schnibbe (University High) is 12th in assists at 6.7. … Portland State senior Claire Faucher (Yakima), who had 30 points in a loss to Gonzaga on Sunday, is 15 assists shy of the school record and 18 from the Big Sky Conference career record. She is averaging 7.7 assists, fifth in the country. PSU junior Kelly Valentine (Mead), who missed the GU game with a sprained ankle, should be back Friday when the Vikings play at Utah Valley State. … Junior Dara Zack (U-Hi) totaled 52 points, 30 rebounds and eight assists as Saint Martin’s won two of three games. She had two double-doubles, giving her five this season, tied for the most in the GNAC.



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