SEATTLE – Gonzaga women’s basketball coach Kelly Graves laced ’em up with his team this week.
Just how well the 6-foot-5 former New Mexico player performed could go a long way in determining how well the Bulldogs fare against 20th-ranked Xavier tonight in the first-round game of the women’s NCAA tournament in Bank of America Arena at Hec Edmundson Pavilion.
Graves was trying to give his team a feel for 6-6 Musketeers star Ta’Shia Phillips, the Atlantic-10 player of the year and an All-America candidate.
“The good thing and bad thing about this week was that I got a chance to play,” Graves said before the 12th-seeded Bulldogs (26-6) practiced Friday afternoon. “I don’t get a chance to play very often, but when you play against someone like Ta’Shia Phillips the only person on our team who can somewhat be like her is me.
“The other side of that is I am not very good, and certainly not as good as Ta’Shia.”
Phillips is fourth in the nation in shooting (61.3 percent) and rebounding (11.9 per game) and leads fifth-seeded Xavier (25-6) in scoring (13.5).
“I have to do all the little things,” 6-2 Gonzaga center Heather Bowman said. “I have to be physical. I have to be fundamental, block out, position, all those things. I might be a little more concerned on the defensive end, just because I think it will be easier on offense to use my quickness to get around her. But it’s going to be a huge challenge on both ends.”
Bowman led the West Coast Conference in scoring at 19.5, which is 18th in the nation, and was third in shooting (51.6 percent) and fifth in rebounding (7.6).
The game starts 30 minutes after fourth-seeded Pittsburgh (23-7) plays 13th-seeded Montana (28-4), which begins at 5 p.m. Both games are on ESPN2.
Graves said the Bulldogs would mix up their defenses, particularly how they defend Phillips, who presents a different challenge than a couple of tall WCC foes.
“She has great hands, she really uses her body well and is super strong,” Graves said. “We haven’t seen that combination since we played Tennessee. We’re just going to try to mix it up. I think that’s the only thing you can do against players like that.”
There is also a concern that 6-5 junior Amber Harris, who reached 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and almost 300 blocked shots in two seasons but has missed this season with a knee injury, could see spot duty.
“She’s a great player,” Graves said. “It’s been tough for us to prepare, because we don’t know if they’ll go with two bigs or are they going to sub her in for Phillips. How are they going to work that dynamic? She’s so talented she can play a variety of positions.”
There is more of a difference between the teams than size in the middle. Xavier is seventh in the nation in defense, allowing 53.1 points a game, and Gonzaga is 12th on offense at 75 points a game.
“Gonzaga is a terrific offensive team,” Xavier coach Kevin McGuff said. “They are really good in transition and have a really good point guard and a good post player. I think our biggest thing is making sure we get back in transition, defensively, and just being at our best on the defensive end.
“We’ve had a lot of terrific wins this year and the common theme with all of them is that you can point to field-goal percentage defense and rebounding margin. When we win those battles, we’re at our best.”
Xavier leads the nation in field-goal defense (32.2 percent) and is a plus-11.3 in rebounding, third in the nation, averaging 44.5 boards a game.
Gonzaga shoots 44 percent a game and grabs 39.8 rebounds, a plus-3.4.
“We’re not going to change what we do offensively,” Graves said. “We want to play a little bit up-tempo. They don’t try to take you out of what you try to do, they just play great position defense, contest shots and are great on the boards.
“If there is one thing we have to do well, it’s rebound. Quite frankly, that’s been an Achilles’ heel of ours, even though we’re a plus rebound margin. They really take it to a whole different level. If we can rebound with them, then we have a chance.”