Some women’s basketball history will be made when Stanford tips off against Gonzaga at McCarthey Athletic Center on Sunday.
Third-ranked Stanford (2-0) will become the highest-ranked women’s team to play in Spokane.
But not by much.
When the Cardinal played in the Spokane regional of the NCAA tournament in 2008, the team was No. 4 and Maryland was No. 5. In 2001, the first time the regional came to Spokane, Duke was No. 5.
What makes this game unique is that it is a regular-season game and Stanford is coming by choice.
Programs like Stanford’s, with three consecutive Final Four appearances and two national titles back in the ’90s, don’t have to play programs with aspirations of getting some of the spotlight, certainly not on the road, and at least not in the regular season.
“Tara VanDerveer understands what’s best for our game,” Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves said of the Cardinal coach. “She’s classy. She gets it and I think that’s great. She’s always been that way. She’ll play anybody and I’m excited about that. This gives us a chance to see how good we can be because we always want to play against the best and right now they’re the best.”
And the Bulldogs (1-1) aren’t pushovers. They’ve become a West Coast power competitive against anyone short of Stanford.
“They have a great program and I think that especially playing teams in the West, they’re a top 20 program,” VanDerveer said. “I think it’s beneficial to both programs.”
Beneficial to both teams? What does the Cardinal have to gain?
“I think it is a little different than what happens in men’s basketball,” VanDerveer said. “We’re maybe a little more in a purist mode. It’s financial but it’s not all about money. I think it’s a good thing to help grow the game. I see it as a great game for us.”
Gonzaga’s men didn’t hear that too many times on their way to the penthouse. Before the game even remotely resembled what it is today, second-ranked Bradley played the Zags at the old Coliseum. That was Feb. 4, 1960.
But in modern times, there hasn’t been anything quite that special despite GU’s willingness to take on all comers.
No. 7 DePaul played at GU in Dec. 1981.
Since their rise to national prominence, the Bulldog men have never been ranked higher than No. 4 for a home game. They played a pair of eighth-ranked teams in 2007: Memphis at the Arena in February and Washington State in December.
Although UCLA and Arizona are among the Pac-10 teams to play WSU’s men in league games, the highest ranking was the Wildcats at No. 5 for a January 1998 game at the Arena.
“I think it’s better on the women’s side,” Graves said. “You look at the matchups. A lot more teams on the women’s side are willing to play other good teams early. There are the exception overall but it does happen more in our game. On the men’s side, they’ll play each other but it’s usually on a neutral site.”
Tennessee played at McCarthey as the defending national champions in December 2008 but the Lady Vols had lost twice and were ranked ninth. It was also a homecoming game for current UT senior Angie Bjorklund.
Although a regional is returning to Spokane in March that has no bearing on Stanford’s decision. And the Cardinal won’t be here for a first-round game because like Gonzaga, Stanford is a host for the opening weekend.
“That doesn’t have anything to do with it for me, it’s really about the fact it’s an extremely competitive game,” said VanDerveer, adding the same time zone and a direct flight were more important. “Being in the West, it’s reasonable in terms of cost. I think it will be an exciting atmosphere. Gonzaga is a program that has developed a great fan base. I like to go to that kind of place, our team likes to play those kind of games. I see it as a win-win for both of us.”
VanDerveer, who revealed the home-and-home series continues next season, said the game is an opportunity for Cardinal sophomore forward Joslyn Tinkle to play closer to her Missoula home.
Tinkle, whose dad was a star at Ferris, started the season opener at “small” forward. She’s 6-foot-3. One of the Ogwumike sisters, junior All-American Nnemkadi or heralded freshman Chiney, both 6-2, is considered the off-guard, the other is the power forward. Kayla Pedersen, a 6-4 senior, rounds out the front line.
Point guard Jeanette Pohlen is a 6-footer.
Kayla Standish, Gonzaga’s 6-2 starting center, said she hasn’t seen a team this big for a few months – since Stanford’s 105-74 win over the Zags last season in California.
“Rebounding will be difficult with their height,” she said. “We have to make sure we block out after each shot, not let them get second chances.
“I’m just excited. I think it’s a great opportunity for us to play against a highly ranked team. To have them come here just helps prepare us for March.”
Size isn’t the only thing that impresses Graves.
“They’re good and they’re big,” he said. “Not just that, they know how to play. They’re well-coached. But their strength and their size are the first things that jump out at you, and their basketball IQ. Obviously their regular IQ is off the charts but their basketball IQ …. They get smart players that know how to play. It’s going to be all about rebounding.”
Pedersen started every game as a freshman, when Stanford was the last team to beat UConn before losing the NCAA title game to Tennessee. Pohlen played in every game that year.
UConn, which won its 80th straight game on Tuesday, beat Stanford in the semis in 2009 and in last year’s championship game.
Gone from that last game are four-year starter Jayne Appel and guard Rosalyn Gold-Onwude.
“I didn’t realize how different we were going to be,” VanDerveer said. “We’re not as good as I hoped to be at this point but we have tremendous upside. A lot depends on our ability as coaches to do a great job of teaching the young players. We have great young players.
“I would hope if people see us now and if we’ll be so fortunate to come back for the regional, you’ll see a team that improves a lot.”