Typical in the moments after the announcement of pairings for the NCAA tournament, members of the Gonzaga’s women’s team didn’t know much about their first-round opponent.
“As far as Xavier, I know they’re a big-name school,” GU junior Heather Bowman said. “I don’t know a lot about them. It will be fun to learn about them and see how we match up.”
Xavier (25-6) is the fifth-seeded team in the Oklahoma City bracket and will meet Gonzaga (26-6), the 12th seed, in the second game of the four-team pod Saturday night in Seattle, at University of Washington’s Bank of America Arena.
The first game, at 5 p.m., is fourth-seeded Pittsburgh (23-7) and 13th-seeded Montana (29-4)
Xavier won the Atlantic 10 with a 15-1 record but lost its first game in the conference tournament. The two teams have one common opponent in St. Joseph’s. Xavier won the league road game 42-41, Gonzaga won the home game 93-70.
“I know it’s probably going to be a tough game,” sophomore point guard Courtney Vandersloot said. “They’re probably big.”
That’s a good place to start.
The Musketeers, making their third straight NCAA appearance and eighth overall, is led by 6-foot-6 sophomore Ta’Shia Phillips, who was the Atlantic 10 player of the year after averaging 13.5 points on 61.3 percent shooting, 11.9 rebounds and 1.7 blocks.
Two other starters average in double figures, senior guards Tudy Reed, 5-11, a transfer from Rutgers (11.1), and 5-7 Jerri Taylor (10.3). The other two starters are 5-6 sophomore guard Special Jennings (8.3 ppg) and 6-foot junior forward April Phillips (7.8), a transfer from Georgia Tech.
Three started every game, Taylor and Phillips missed one game apiece.
Bowman leads the Bulldogs with 19.5 points and 7.6 rebounds. Vandersloot averages 16.4 points and is third in the nation in assists at 7.4. Vivian Frieson joined them as an All-West Coast Conference selection after averaging 10 points and 7.1 rebounds.
Three Bulldogs (sophomore Janelle Bekkering, freshmen Kelly Bowen and Kayla Standish) have played in all 32 games and only Bowman has started every game she played in (31). Nine different players have started. Third leading scorer Tiffanie Schives only played in 10 games before a season-ending injury and senior co-captain Jami Schaefer missed nine games with a knee injury.
“I’m excited,” Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves said. “The seeds are one thing, but I think it’s about the matchups. I don’t know a lot about Xavier. I’ve known coach (Kevin) McGuff for quite a while. He was an assistant on the Notre Dame staff when I played them with Saint Mary’s back in the ‘99 tournament. He’s built a good program.”
The Musketeers played in the 2003 NCAA tournament in McGuff’s first year and then made three-straight WNIT appearances. His record at the Cincinnati school is 155-65. McGuff replaced Melanie Balcomb, who built the Musketeers into a power before going to Vanderbilt.
Graves is 170-108 in nine seasons at Gonzaga with five post-season appearances. They made their first NCAA appearance in 2007.
“We’ve talked about it,” Bowman, the 2008 WCC player of the year, said. “The difference from that year is we were just kind of just happy to be there. … Now this is the first step to what we want to do.”
That means winning, and Seattle could be an advantage.
“We’ve already played there this year, which obviously helps,” Graves said about an early season win over Washington. “A lot of our players have played summer tournaments there. It’s a quick trip for us, which is already nice. We have some local players from there, Vivian and Courtney. Zags fans and alumni in the area can come support us; that obviously can be an advantage.”
Vandersloot, the reigning West Coast Conference player of the year and tournament MVP from Kent, said, “I’m going home. I’m not sure if it will be an advantage. It just gives us that extra confidence playing in front of people that are on our side, people that know us. Playing in front of our families is always such a big thing.”
Tickets will be on sale by phone only from 9 a.m. to noon for Bulldog Club Members, season ticket holders and students. The cost is $18 per day. If the Bulldogs win Saturday, purchasers will automatically be billed another $18. The number to call is (509) 313-6000.
Tickets can also be purchased through the University of Washington at GoHuskies.com.