Zags come home with big memories

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Apparently there comes a time in March Madness for Women when there is no denying the old daredevil’s shibboleth.

Go big or go home.

For Gonzaga, that time was Saturday night. Which was a problem, seeing as at that point you can’t just pop next door and borrow a cup of tall.

And so homeward bound are the Bulldogs – the basketball team, their coach insisted, by which all others past and future in the West Coast Conference will be measured, but which on this night didn’t measure up to Xavier in altitude, square footage or siccum and bumped its head on the ceiling of the Sweet 16. The Musketeers, meanwhile, will collide with Stanford on Monday for the right to play in the Final Four, and you might want to clear the shelves of loose knickknacks because the aftershocks will be felt in Spokane.

The size of Gonzaga’s loss – 74-56 – was both an eyebrow raiser given how close the first half was and just about right in light of the second being no contest whatsoever.

“I know everybody’s disappointed in that last game,” said coach Kelly Graves. “When we have a chance to sit back and look at it, we’ll realize it was a great ride and a lot of fun and we enjoyed every minute of it – although maybe it didn’t look enjoyable tonight.”

No. In fact, it looked for long stretches as if the Zags were the target pad and the Musketeers were the sledgehammer in the old carnival test of strength.

With the Zags trailing by just a point at halftime, the entire momentum of a remarkable season took all of two minutes to grind to a halt. Gonzaga came up empty on its first six possessions of the second half while Xavier got its twin Gigantors, 6-foot-6 Ta’Shia Phillips and 6-5 Amber Harris, jump-started. When Phillips converted a putback to cap a 9-0 burst, it was either a bad omen or game over, depending on your threshold of fatalism.

“I’m just guessing,” said Gonzaga’s Vivian Frieson, who spent most of the game warring with Harris despite spotting her five inches, “but they probably got yelled at during halftime for not going into the post – because I felt they really hadn’t been looking in there too much. And they probably also got yelled at about rebounding, because they came out and really went to the boards.”

By the time the Musketeers had opened up a 13-point lead with just less than 8 minutes to play, they had outrebounded Gonzaga 18-4 in the second half – half of those on the offensive end.

There were other factors, of course. Xavier got a strong effort from point guard Special Jennings – is her jump shot called “Special J?” – whose game was as even and controlled as Gonzaga’s Courtney Vandersloot’s was, well, fitful. And the real X factor was freshman sharpshooter Katie Rutan, the perfect antidote to any sagging zone.

Still, it was going to come down to how Gonzaga dealt with Xavier’s size. Graves even trotted out an old CYO truism before the game – “Players work better when prayers are bigger, but prayers work better when players are bigger” – and Gonzaga’s only prayer this night was if the big ’uns didn’t go to work. Indeed, when the two teams gathered to jump it up to start the game, the wispy-by-comparison Zags looked altogether CYOish; Phillips had arms bigger than Gonzaga supersub Katelan Redmon.

That edge eventually brought Gonzaga’s transition game to a halt – hard to get out and run when you can’t get the ball off the glass. When the Zags did start to run, Jennings and her teammates were often able to get a hand on Vandersloot’s dribble, short-circuiting any number of potential fast breaks.

If there was a particular disappointment, it may have been that the Zags went down without a particularly auspicious finish for their three leaders. Vandersloot did have 11 assists and cut her turnovers in half from the nightmare against Texas A&M, but managed just six points. Career scoring leader Heather Bowman had 12, but went nearly 20 minutes without scoring when the Musketeers pulled away. And Frieson, the heroine of the A&M thriller, hit just 2 of 8 shots – yet another impact of Xavier’s defensive size.

But the beauty of winning 29 games to get here, of course, is that the Zags can choose to treasure any and all of those – and the frontiers they opened.

“We’re going to remember the team we played on and how much fun we had,” Frieson said, “and we’re not going to remember the losses 10 or 20 years down the road.”

As truths go, that’s the biggest.

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