None of the season-long prognosticators ever penciled Gonzaga University into the Seattle pod for the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, but once the Bulldogs secured their bid by winning the West Coast Conference tournament in Las Vegas, they had a full week to dream.
Senior forward Vivian Frieson never lost faith.
“I watch a lot of college basketball and it pops up, ‘Women’s basketball, NCAA tournament, Round 1, Round 2 in Seattle,’ ” she said. “Since Las Vegas, all I’ve been thinking about, all I’ve been saying is, ‘Let’s go to Seattle. Coach we’ve got to get Seattle. We’re going to get Seattle.’ That’s all I’ve been hoping for.”
Her faith was rewarded when the NCAA tournament bracket was revealed Monday afternoon with Gonzaga headed to Seattle for a Saturday matchup with North Carolina.
The Bulldogs reacted to the announcement as if they were a bubble team barely sneaking into the tournament, not the 18th-ranked team in the country with an 18-game winning streak and 27-4 record.
“I’m really, really excited,” said junior point guard Courtney Vandersloot, who is from Kent. “Last year I was excited we were going to play in Seattle. From the bottom of my heart I didn’t think we’d get Seattle again. We’re really fortunate to get it and I’m really excited to play in that atmosphere again.”
GU coach Kelly Graves said, “I honestly didn’t think we could get it again. I think the NCAA is still trying to put teams regionally, where it makes sense.”
The Bulldogs even go in as the seventh-seed with traditional power North Carolina (19-11) at No. 10. The other Seattle game features two teams GU has played this year, ninth-ranked and second-seeded Texas A&M (25-7) against No. 15 Portland State (18-14).
Texas A&M and Portland State play at 5 p.m. Saturday, with Gonzaga and UNC meeting 20 minutes after the end of the first game, or about 7:30.
“I thought that was about right,” Graves said of the seeding. “It’s kind of funny, you hope for a high seed but when it comes up you go, ‘OK,’ and forget about that and just worry about who you’re going to play and how you’re going to try to beat them.”
Surprisingly, North Carolina was a bubble team, just hoping to get to its 22nd NCAA tournament.
The Tar Heels were ranked No. 5 in the preseason, started 5-0 and were 13-1 when things began to fall apart. They tied for seventh in the Atlantic Coast Conference with a 6-8 record and finished the season 2-8.
“Obviously, we have struggled at times this season, but I think our best basketball is still ahead of us,” UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell said.
“I don’t know a whole lot about North Carolina; I don’t know a lot about any teams in the tournament,” Gonzaga senior Heather Bowman said. “It’s more just about the placement. It feels really good. That gives us a lot of confidence.
“I’m sure they are a very talented team. They have a lot of weapons. What really matters is how they play in this tournament, how they’re playing right now.”
“I think it will be a good contest,” Frieson said. “When I was a freshman, we played UNC in Hawaii. We didn’t do that great against them but I think we now have a chance – a better team, more experienced.
“We’ll be expecting their pressure and their up-tempo game. That’s the kind of game we play, too.”
Hatchell, who is in the Hall of Fame, has been at UNC for 24 seasons and has more than 800 victories in her 35 seasons of coaching, including a national championship in 1994.
Her 2006-07 team started the season with a school-record 24 straight wins, including a 101-63 victory over Gonzaga, and finished with a record 34 wins in reaching the Final Four.
“That was a forgettable game,” Graves said. “But we’re a different team now. We didn’t have a guard named Courtney Vandersloot and they had one named Ivory Latta.
“I saw them a couple of weeks ago. They’re the same – long, athletic. They change defenses, just a variety of stuff.”
The Bulldogs will be counting on a big, partisan crowd at the University of Washington Bank of America Arena to give them a boost, just as they did a year ago. The 12th-seeded Bulldogs upended No. 5 Xavier 74-59 before losing to No. 4 Pittsburgh, 65-60.
“It really did help a lot,” Vandersloot said. “This was a team that didn’t have success in the past in the NCAA tournament, but to be able to play in front of some of our greatest fans and family, it gave us that confidence. I think that’s going to be a factor again this year.”
If the Bulldogs were to beat North Carolina and either of the two opponents they faced in December, Texas A&M, which they lost to 80-76, or Portland State, which they beat 64-57, they could face Xavier again. The Musketeers are the third-seed with a 27-3 record and ranked fifth in the country.