It has become commonplace for Spokane to host NCAA basketball tournament games, but on Thursday the NCAA upped the ante.
Not only will Washington State University and the Spokane Arena host a women’s regional in 2011 – the third time the Sweet 16/Elite Eight will be here – but Gonzaga and McCarthey Athletic Center will serve as host and site for first- and second-round games the same year.
That’s a first for Gonzaga and guarantees the Bulldogs will play at home if they make the tournament.
“It’s humbling as a program that we’re getting the national recognition we have strived for and we feel we deserve,” GU junior point guard Courtney Vandersloot said.
Unlike the men’s tournament, which has eight eight-team neutral sites for the opening round, the women’s tournament has 16 sites with four teams and expects the host school to be involved.
“The important thing, and this is a loud, clear voice from the coaches and student athletes, they want to play in filled arenas,” said GU associate athletic director Heather Gores, a member of the NCAA Tournament selection committee. “They don’t want to be in a site that doesn’t have a local team around.”
Among the other first-round sites for 2011 are national powers Connecticut, Tennessee, Stanford and Ohio State.
“This is amazing,” Bulldogs coach Kelly Graves said. “… This is a great thing for Gonzaga University overall, definitely for our program and for the Spokane community. … It’s a long way away, but it’s exciting.”
Gonzaga returns 10 of its top 11 players, including four starters, from last year’s team, which went 27-7 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Of those 10 returning players only three are seniors.
“We’re thinking this year,” said Graves, who has a 172-109 record in eight seasons at GU. “As a coach you get into this business because you always put pressure on yourself to do the best you can each year. Whether we were a host site or not, it’s never a factor, you want to be the best you can be each year.”
The 2011 games at GU will be either March 19 and 21 or March 20 and 22. The regional is scheduled for March 26 and 28.
“The committee spent an extensive amount of time reviewing all the bid specs and as we tried to figure out ways to build the women’s game and build some momentum for the regional tournament, it became evident that Spokane was a great spot with a team that’s on the rise nationally,” Gore said.
“That created a very unique opportunity to do some creative ticket pricing and marketing of women’s basketball in the Pacific Northwest. That was a big factor.”
Gonzaga and Washington State submitted separate bids. While there was some communication between the schools prior to the selection, Gore said, “It was very late in the game. Are there risks? Sure. (But) for the city of Spokane it’s a great opportunity to showcase the sport. We have a deep history of women’s basketball here.”
When Spokane hosted the 2001 regional, which included the University of Washington, 22,092 fans attended the two sessions, the seventh-best-attended regional in history. In 2008, more than 14,000 fans attended.
“With Stanford, Vanderbilt, Pittsburgh and Maryland, it was a decent crowd,” Gore said. “It showed well on television, which is important, and those that participated were pleased.”
GU athletic director Mike Roth called the announcement a historic moment for the school. “I have to thank our staff for putting this together,” he said. “But we also need to thank the community that supports us. … That helped the Women’s Basketball Selection Committee decide on putting this here in Spokane, giving an opportunity to showcase not only Gonzaga University and Gonzaga women’s basketball but to showcase Spokane. We can’t be more thrilled.”