SACRAMENTO, Calif. – At first glance, it might appear tonight’s game between seventh-seeded Gonzaga and third-seeded Xavier in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament should be a duplicate of last year’s matchup.
Combined, 17 of 20 players who participated in the 12th-seeded Bulldogs’ 74-59 first-round upset of the fifth-seeded Musketeers are back for this Sweet 16 showdown at Arco Arena.
“Both teams can throw last season out, because I really think we’re two different teams,” Bulldogs coach Kelly Graves said. “We’re all going to look for whatever mental edge we can get. Theirs might be revenge, ours might be confidence because we beat this team before. Whatever you can find you use, but I think we’re two different teams.”
That’s because last year both teams were missing key ingredients that have made huge contributions to special seasons.
Fifth-ranked Xavier (28-3) is the third seed in the Sacramento Regional and 18th-ranked Gonzaga (29-4) is seeded seventh. Both are riding 20-game winning streaks.
They meet after fifth-seeded Georgia (25-8) tackles top-seeded Stanford (33-1), which begins the doubleheader at 6 p.m.
The premise of the Gonzaga-Xavier matchup hasn’t changed. For Gonzaga, it’s battling the Musketeers’ size. For Xavier, it’s slowing down the Bulldogs’ transition game.
But as Graves pointed out, Xavier has more size and Gonzaga has more legs for the rematch.
“Last year we just had to contend with one 6-foot-6 All-American,” he said. “It was tough enough to try and stop Ta’Shia Phillips, and obviously we didn’t. She had 26 (points) and 18 (rebounds). Now that we have to give some attention to Amber Harris it really makes it doubly tough.”
Phillips was the Atlantic 10 player of the year last season, which Harris missed with a knee injury. This season, the 6-5 Harris supplanted her teammate as the MVP so Phillips had to settle for being the defensive player of the year. The two former A-10 rookies of the year, now juniors together, combine for 29.9 points and 20.5 rebounds.
That’s a tall order for Gonzaga’s senior starters, 6-2 Heather Bowman and 6-0 Vivian Frieson.
“Although we’re undersized we do have the tenacity,” Bowman said. “We have fight in us and we’re going to be able to hold our own against them.”
They combined for 40 points and nine rebounds last year and are averaging 27.9 points 13 rebounds this year.
On the flip side, the Musketeers hope to contain a high-performance offense that averages 80.7 points a game, fifth in the nation, directed by Courtney Vandersloot, who leads the nation in assists at 9.3 per game.
“We had a hard time stopping them. Vandersloot was awesome,” Xavier coach Kevin McGuff said. “We really allowed her to do whatever she wanted and she kind of carved us up.
“We will have to do a much better job because when she gets going … I don’t know if there’s anybody better in terms of getting her teammates involved and getting them good shots.”
And as Graves points out, the Bulldogs were without sharp-shooter Tiffanie Shives (knee injury) and 6-0 Katelan Redmon (transfer redshirt) and 6-2 Kayla Standish wasn’t much of a factor as a freshman.
McGuff didn’t put much stock in the 11 turnovers Vandersloot committed against Texas A&M Monday, not after she had 15 assists against North Carolina in the first round last Saturday.
“(The Aggies) bring a lot of pressure and … did a good job on her,” McGuff said. “But I think it will be a much different game because we’ve got a different team.”
Vandersloot said her misery may have been a positive.
“If I would have ended my season like that I don’t know if I could have handled it,” she said. “The first game I was able to set up my teammates, the second game I felt like I couldn’t do anything right.
“I think we learned a lot about ourselves. It’s not just up to me to set up the players. We have players on this team that can do it.”
Xavier does have an X factor.
The Musketeers’ guards were 10 of 47 against the Bulldogs last year, when the plan was to shut down the perimeter and see if Phillips could win the game alone.
The presence of Harris alters that plan along with the addition of freshman Kate Rutan. Coming off the bench, the 5-8 guard is hitting 41 percent of her 3-pointers and is third on the team in scoring at 8.9.
“They didn’t have a shooter like Rutan,” Graves said. “(That) stretches the defense a little more. Last year we didn’t worry as much about the inside, we wanted to take the guards away. This year you’ve got to do both.”