There are plenty of ways to put pressure on the Gonzaga women’s basketball team, so a little thing like being host for the first weekend of the NCAA tournament – which translates into being expected to be there – doesn’t change things much.
“We’ve always approached it as the next game is the only thing that’s important,” veteran coach Kelly Graves said. “We’ve been fortunate to have the kind of group that is able to focus one step at a time, but it’s out there. I think it’s a really good incentive. We’re going to welcome that kind of pressure, or however you want to put it, to ensure that we’re playing at home at the end of the year.”
The Bulldogs started practice Monday – new legislation allowed women’s teams to start as early as Sunday – with a goal of reaching the NCAA tournament for the third straight season and fourth overall, all under Graves, who is starting his 11th season.
Last season was the high-water mark for the Zags, a trip to the Sweet 16 and a Top 20 ranking to go with their sixth straight West Coast Conference title.
“We recruit players that are driven; we’re driven,” Graves said. “Not to put pressure on, our girls have handled pressure for years. It’s not as if this is the first time we’ve gone into the season as the reigning champ or the team to beat. We’re a little bit used to it.”
Then he pointed to all the banners in the rafters at McCarthey Athletic Center and added, “Let’s face it, it’s part of the culture here at GU.”
If the Bulldogs could make another trip to the Sweet 16 it would be much easier than it was last year when they went to Sacramento and lost to Xavier to finish 29-5. After the Bulldogs host first- and second-round games, Washington State will be hosting a regional at the Spokane Arena for the third time.
“Honestly, I haven’t thought about that too much,” Graves said. “We’ve been thinking recruiting right now and just trying to prepare for practice. We’ll take the same approach we always do, set high goals for ourselves and then work every day, game in and game out, to achieve them, without thinking too far ahead.”
Practice, practice, practice
If you get the sense practice started early, you’re right.
A new rule allows teams to begin practice 40 days before their first game, but they’re still allowed only 30 practices. A practice includes a day of any kind of team exercise such as running or weight lifting, even if they don’t go on the court.
Washington State, Eastern Washington and Idaho also started Monday. Some teams across the nation are continuing with the traditional schedule, with practices starting in the middle of the month.
Brittany Kennedy had every intention of staying at Oregon State despite the mass exodus of her teammates following the season. Eight players had left, including Haiden Palmer to Gonzaga, by the time coach LaVonda Wagner was fired at the end of May
However, once the new coaching staff was in place and Kennedy saw how bleak things appeared, she decided to transfer.
“I didn’t want to waste my last years of eligibility,” the Lewis and Clark graduate said. “I wanted to stay loyal to the program but they weren’t staying loyal to me. I have two years left want to get the most out of it.”
She just returned from a re-recruiting trip to Florida Gulf Coast University of the Atlantic Sun Conference in Fort Meyer and committed to the Eagles.
Coach Karl Smesko made a good impression while she was researching possibilities on the Internet.
“It’s a great atmosphere, great situation and the coach is phenomenal,” she said. “I took a visit down there and loved it.”
Because she has to sit out a year anyway, Kennedy will enroll in school in January and continue work for a social work degree. She will stay in Spokane until then and coach at the Spokane Stars camps.
Jordan Loera, a standout guard for Moses Lake who played five summers with the Spokane Stars, committed to Oregon over Washington State. … The Cougs did get a commitment from 6-foot-4 post Shalie Dheensaw of Victoria, British Columbia, who was also offered by Gonzaga. … Already headed to Gonzaga are big Pullman post Shelby Cheslec and Keani Albanez, a 5-11 guard from Ventura, Calif., who is ranked No. 72 by HoopGurlz. … Kiki Moore, an All-Pac 10 freshman who was WSU’s second-leading scorer, transferred to Fresno State. … Idaho has a game scheduled for ESPNU on Jan. 6 when the Vandals are at Nevada (8 p.m.). … Washington State has two games set for FSN, Jan. 30 at Washington and Feb. 12 at California. … Gonzaga star Courtney Vandersloot was named to the Sports News’ preseason All-America first team and Lindy’s third team. Expect Vandersloot to be on the John Wooden Award list that comes out Wednesday. She, along with U-Hi grad Angie Bjorklund, a senior at Tennessee, made the list for the Wade Trophy.