SEATTLE – Ta’Shia Phillips was everything she was cracked up to be.
Gonzaga’s Bulldogs were more.
Not rattled by the 6-foot-6 Phillips’ 26 points and 18 rebounds, Gonzaga followed its game plan to near perfection to win its first game in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, 74-59 over 20th-ranked Xavier Saturday night at Hec Edmondson Pavilion.
“It feels great, it really does,” sophomore point guard Courtney Vandersloot said. “But to be honest, when we came here we weren’t looking to play just one. We were expecting to compete.”
The Bulldogs never trailed and closed the game with a 14-2 run to delight a mostly partisan crowd of 2,853.
Gonzaga (27-6), the 12th seed in the Oklahoma City regional, plays No. 4 Pittsburgh (24-7) at 6:30 p.m. Monday. Pitt destroyed Montana in the second half of a 64-35 win in the first game.
Vandersloot played a near-flawless floor game, scoring 15 points, grabbing a team-high six rebounds and dishing off 11 assists with only three turnovers. Heather Bowman, a 6-2 junior center, used her midrange game as well as attacking inside to lead the Bulldogs with 23 points on 9-of-17 shooting. And 6-1 forward Vivian Frieson, GU’s third All-West Coast Conference player, had 17 points, five rebounds, three assists, three blocks and a steal.
“I’m so happy to be here, but it’s not like this isn’t what we expected,” Bowman said. “We just fulfilled our goal.”
But it wasn’t just the Big Three, all of whom played 38 minutes.
It seemed like every time the Bulldogs needed a lift, someone stepped up.
It started with Janelle Bekkering opening the game with a 3-pointer. Reserve Kayla Standish then hit one from the corner late in the first half, which ended with the Bulldogs ahead 29-26.
It continued in the second half, with Jami Schaefer hitting a 3-pointer to cap a 10-0 run for a 41-28 lead, and reserves Kelly Bowmen and Clair Raap knocking down shots when left unguarded.
“Courtney said it, we have a lot of different players that are offensively gifted,” Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves said. “We played 10 players in the first half, even though some of them didn’t play that long – just a few possessions here and there – (but) it did two things. It allowed us to rest our regulars and it gave them a little bit of confidence. … It’s huge when you can get contributions from (everyone).”
Meanwhile, Xavier (25-7), the fifth seed, only got scoring from four starters and one reserve in support of Phillips.
“It was a big challenge,” Bowman said. “I had to work hard out there. She gets such good position. She’s a big girl and she’s skilled. She put up some big numbers on us. We had a game plan to do what we could against her, I had great help from my teammates and it was enough.”
The question is how did Phillips average only 13 points and 11 rebounds during the season? She had 12 and 10 at halftime and she dominated in the final 15 minutes were her teammates became more aggressive.
“What we wanted to do, we thought the only way we would be able to neutralize them as a whole was just change things up,” Graves said. “We mixed up our defenses, we never stayed in one any longer than two or three possessions. That was the way we were going to handle her inside. She’s a great player”
Gonzaga shot 46 percent for the game against the top-ranked field-goal defense in the nation (32.8 percent). The Zags held the Musketeers to 33 percent shooting, including 3 for 19 from behind the 3-point line, by a team that is 27th in the nation (36 percent).
“The one advantage we have is we’re not very tall, but we’re long across the wings,” Graves said. “They got inside to (Phillips) a lot, but we wanted to contain penetration and not allow 3s. I thought our perimeter defenders did a pretty good job.”
“We didn’t have enough fire power,” Xavier guard Dee Dee Jernigan said. “They play hard, they play together, they executed well. They know who to go to. They know the scorers, they know the playmakers.”
It showed with 20 assists on 28 baskets, and 74 points against a team that allows 53, seventh lowest in the nation.
After Schaefer gave the Bulldogs that 13-point lead, the advantage hovered around 10 until Xavier put together a 10-2 run to pull within 60-57 with 4:03 to play.
Two free throws by Bekkering, followed by an offensive rebound basket by Bowman started the game-ending run.
“One of the things we talked about before the game was that we needed to keep our composure and make plays, especially down the stretch, and they certainly did,” Graves said. “I was proud at critical times late kids stepped up and made some great plays.”
Gonzaga got beat on the boards but not pounded. Xavier had a 47-37 advantage, including 19-6 on the offensive end. But the Musketeers didn’t convert that into much of a bigger advantage (19-6) than the Bulldogs did by turning 15 turnovers into 13 points while XU only got five points off of 10 turnovers.
“Give Gonzaga credit,” Xavier coach Kevin McGuff said. “They played an excellent game. I’m disappointed for our players, because I don’t think we played up to our capabilities.”
Gonzaga 74, Xavier 59
Percentages: FG .459, FT .833. 3-Point Goals: 3-11, .273 (Frieson 0-2, Bekkering 1-4, Vandersloot 0-2, Schaefer 1-1, Standish 1-1, Bowen 0-1). Team Rebounds: 5. Blocked Shots: 4 (Frieson 3). Turnovers: 10 (Frieson 3, Vandersloot 3). Steals: 0. Technical Fouls: None.
Percentages: FG .329, FT .667. 3-Point Goals: 3-19, .158 (Jennings 1-2, Reed 0-5, Taylor 0-9, Jernigan 2-3). Team Rebounds: 4. Blocked Shots: 1 (T. Phillips). Turnovers: 15 (Taylor 4). Steals: 4 (Taylor 2). Technical Fouls: None.
Halftime–Gonzaga 29, Xavier 26. A–2,853.