SEATTLE – For 81 seconds – the last 81 seconds – Courtney Vandersloot had the worst seat in the house.
An unobstructed view from the bench.
The view during the previous 38-plus minutes against Texas A&M wasn’t all that scenic, either. A snarl of Aggie arms, shoulders and hips crowding her every move, knocking her sideways, hands snaking out to poke away the ball in a nightmarish series of turnovers, 11 in all, bunched up next to her name – her, the most prolific and efficient offensive distributor of the basketball Gonzaga women’s basketball has ever seen.
“Poor Courtney,” said teammate Tiffanie Shives. “They were wearing her like a jersey.”
Already she couldn’t do enough to help her team and then she couldn’t do anything at all, whistled for a fifth and disqualifying foul for stumbling into an Aggie who had herself stumbled and lost control of her dribble, a harmless 35 feet from the basket, the Zags clinging to a three-point lead and 81 seconds remaining.
Her night in a nutshell.
“The worst feeling I’ve ever had,” she admitted. “Hands down. Just because I felt like I let my teammates down. They’re counting on me to be on the floor and I wasn’t there for them.”
And yet it was OK. Somebody else was there. Vivian Frieson made a delicate jumper and the Zags defended like crazy for the last 12.8 seconds. A drifting shot by A&M road-grader Danielle Adams caromed high off the rim and after what seemed like a month Gonzaga’s Janelle Bekkering cradled the rebound as time expired.
And suddenly the view couldn’t have been sweeter – and that meant for Vandersloot, too.
New vistas opened up for the Zags on Monday night, their wild 72-71 victory over A&M sending them to Sacramento and their first Sweet 16 appearance in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament. It answered at least one question about the Bulldogs and spawned others.
“How many texts does a phone hold?” wondered coach Kelly Graves, staring at the cell in his hand in much the way the apes regarded the monolith in “2001.”
He should know by morning.
Other discoveries came over the course of two games here at Bank of America Arena. In dispatching North Carolina and A&M, the Bulldogs affirmed their new place among the college women’s teams of national regard. Opportunities in that department had been missed during the regular season, including one against the Aggies. They would not be lost here.
And on Monday night, they reminded us that they didn’t have to be perfect to do it and that they could survive without top-shelf performances from their two top-shelf players, Vandersloot and Heather Bowman.
They found other means. Kayla Standish was a monster in a first-half run that staked the Zags to an early lead. Shives had the biggest bucket until, well, the truly biggest bucket. And then there was Frieson, who was spectacular in every regard – even being the point guard when it became too overwhelming for Vandersloot.
“Viv, I just want to give her a big kiss,” said Shives.
Indeed, the Zags’ ability to backfill for their struggling stars seemed almost instinctual.
“Maybe it isn’t with all teams, but it is with this group,” Graves insisted. “It’s easy to say after this game, but I’ve never had a group with this kind of chemistry.”
And if it was painful to watch a special talent like Vandersloot flail, it was telling that she made a game-turning play just before her exit – a steal and kickout to Shives for a 3-pointer that broke a tie at 67 with 2 minutes left.
“You’re the point guard and everyone is expecting you to handle the pressure,” she said. “I wasn’t happy with the way I handled it – I thought I learned the first time against them. But I’m glad I can take the lesson with me to the Sweet 16.”
Besides, it was a shared struggle.
“We had 16 turnovers from our guards for our 18, which is uncharacteristic,” said A&M coach Gary Blair. “But they had 14 turnovers out of their guards. Both teams were not handling the ball and making the right decisions but a lot of that is because no one could get open so the guards had to eat the ball a little. For the most part the refs were letting us bump and grind pretty good out there.”
Well, it is the Big Dance. And look who’s still on their feet.
“This is a team that deserves to be there,” said Vandersloot. “But at the same time, we’re not going to settle for this. We have higher goals, but we’re happy to make that one next step. ”
It’s the best seat in the house.