Watching the Gonzaga women’s basketball team, it’s easy to be wowed by Heather Bowman’s scoring and Courtney Vandersloot’s playmaking.
Then there is Vivian Frieson.
There is a wow factor with Frieson, but it generally comes in retrospect.
While the 6-foot-1 junior forward from Seattle is overshadowed by the last two West Coast Conference players of the year, she fills up a box score. Frieson leads the Bulldogs in steals and blocks, is second in rebounds and assists, and is third in scoring.
“She may not be the Player of the Year, but she could be the best player or could be the most valuable player,” coach Kelly Graves said of Frieson as the Bulldogs prepared for Saturday night’s NCAA tournament game against Xavier in Seattle. “She can do a little of everything and she is a smart of player as I’ve ever coached. I think she’s going to be a great coach.”
“I don’t know,” teammate Tiffany Shives said, shaking her head. “She’ll randomly come on from nowhere and do things that no one else on the team can do. I’m excited for her this year.”
Maybe it was the 26-point game, or the 16-rebound game, or the 10-steal game, or the seven-assist game, or the five-block game.
“I think it’s just doing what Coach asks me to do,” Frieson said. “If you go out there and do what Coach tells you to do, just hustle and work hard, you’re going to be able to do that any time. Buckle down on defense, focus on rebounding, it just naturally happens.”
That has always been Frieson’s game.
“In high school I was a stat filler-upper, but I think it was less efficient,” she said. “Even my first couple years in college, I wasn’t very efficient. I really worked hard at was being more efficient and effective. A lot of it is seeing yourself on film, having coaches who are able to point out what you’re doing wrong and being patient with you.
“A lot of it is being smarter over time. I really grew into the system. Not that I didn’t believe in it, but this year … there’s a big difference. There’s a lot less of trying to create and more of knowing what needs to be done and executing.”
It was a work in progress.
“When she came in as a freshman, I liken it to Picasso – you look at a blank canvas, really,” Graves said. “She played on that Garfield team that won the state championship and she was like the fifth option. You could see there was some greatness in there, but the work ethic wasn’t really there on a consistent basis. The confidence wasn’t there, so she deferred a lot to everybody else. From day one, as she has gotten more confident, she has gotten better and better.”
Frieson averages 10 points, 7.1 rebounds, almost three assists, more than two steals and 1.6 blocks, great numbers to Bowman’s 19 points and seven rebounds and Vandersloot’s 16 points and seven assists.
“Coach has always said if we have that third scorer we’re really hard to beat,” Vandersloot said. “Viv has really stepped up in that role. … It’s definitely easier (for me). It’s easier for teams to defend if they’re just focusing on one player. Another scoring threat opens it up for Bow down low and out on the wing, too. It spreads out the defense a lot more.”
Shives has learned to appreciate Frieson’s game after being sidelined with a season-ending injury.
“She doesn’t care if she puts out a single stat, she’s just going out there and working her butt off,” Shives said. “She does a lot of our dirty work that’s unnoticed.”
Opponents are the ones who notice.
“Coaches have told me she’s the toughest matchup in the conference,” Graves said. “Put a quicker, smaller kid on her and she can obviously post up, and if a bigger kid is on her we like to run a lot of isolation because she’s quicker.”
A big part of Frieson’s improvement has been in consistency.
“A number of things can break your focus in a basketball game,” she said. “You can have opponents who talk trash, fans who talk trash. That’s one thing that takes a lot of preparation. I don’t think people understand the mental focus. It’s something you have to work hard to do.
“I play with a lot of passion, a lot of attitude. I think that’s one thing people know about me, I wear my emotions on my sleeve in the games. That’s something I’ve really worked hard to change, worked to put it on my side instead of having it play a role against me.”
Shives said Frieson has turned that passion into an asset.
“Her leadership is what has really improved,” Shives said. “She went from introverted to being out there, being in people’s face, letting them know when they do something wrong – which is what we need.”
Frieson is excited to take her versatility at home with the NCAA tournament stop at the University of Washington.
“It’s a big deal,” she said. “I’m happy I get to share this experience with a lot of people who mean a lot to me – my mom, my family, my high school coaches, my AAU coaches, all the people who molded me into who I am. It’s important to me for them to see me play.”