February 13, 2011 in Sports

Gonzaga’s Vandersloot can score and pass with the best

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Jesse Tinsley photoBuy this photo

Courtney Vandersloot unleashes a pass ahead of Pepperdine’s Skye Barnett, left, on Saturday.
(Full-size photo)

A thousand of anything implies routine and the 1,000th of Courtney Vandersloot’s passes to have assisted a basket at Gonzaga University mirrored that, lobbed an arm’s length over the baseline into the hands of Kayla Standish for a layup.

Hold the mustard.

It took Gonzaga just eight trips down the floor Saturday for the senior guard to collect the three assists she needed to reach the big round number, allowing the Zags and 4,744 in attendance at McCarthey Athletic Center to settle back for more of the routine – another West Coast Conference blowout.

Which never happened.

It’s remarkable how these heralded anointments are often carpet-bombed with the hiccups. Strafed earlier this season in Malibu, Pepperdine did not back down here, and still led by nine with 14 1/2 minutes to play – something the Zags haven’t exper- ienced against a WCC team at home in two years.

So on Courtney Vandersloot’s big day, restoring order was left to … Courtney Vandersloot.

The Zags would score the next 13 points and never surrender the lead in a 73-59 victory, and all 13 were either started or finished by Vandersloot, suggesting again that she’s not just another pretty pass. If Gonzaga plays long enough this season, she has a chance at being the first collegian to top 1,000 assists and 2,000 points. She can score on drives, runners, 3s. She is – by coach’s acclaim – the team’s best on-ball defender.

“I think she’s embracing the fact that she’s a really good player,” said Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves. “Some never do.”

But Saturday was all about the passing. In reaching 1,000, Vandersloot joins just three other women and three men who have done so at the Division I level.

Yet we could have been here sooner.

In Vandersloot’s first appearance as a Bulldog three seasons ago, she checked in off the bench with the game 3 1/2 minutes old and had her first assist 16 seconds later. Before she took a breather, Vandersloot had notched three more and the Zags were off on a 91-72 romp over Washington. Her line for the night: 10 assists, no turnovers.

But Graves, erring on the side of loyalty to a good-soldier senior, didn’t make her a starter for nearly another month.

“We were an entirely different team when she stepped on the floor,” he acknowledged.

Katelan Redmon was on the opposing side that night (“I had a good view from the bench – I got two quick fouls”) before transferring to GU the following year, and can whittle down her coach’s broader view.

“Unlike most point guards, she can find you even if you don’t think you’re open,” Redmon said, “if that makes sense. If you have even a little space, she’s going to get you the ball.”

This uncannily calls to mind a remark Karl Malone once made after an implausible pass by Utah Jazz teammate John Stockton – another Gonzagan whose assist milestones are in the many multiples of a thousand – hit him in stride for a layup as Michael Jordan rode piggyback.

“I thought, ‘Well, Stock doesn’t throw bad passes,’ ” Malone said then, “so I must be open.”

Stockton’s retired Gonzaga jersey, of course, hangs on the wall above where Vandersloot does her business these days. He has given her some informal counsel in the past, and so maybe it’s not surprising that when asked what assists measure, her answers echoed what he outlined back when he was becoming the NBA’s all-time leader:

• Finishers: “I can’t get an assist without them making the basket,” she said, “and I always tell them it’s a lot harder making the basket than it is to make the pass.”

• Pace: “I get a lot of assists in transition and because we push the ball, so I’m fortunate to play in a style I like to play and where I’m at my best.”

• Familiarity: “It’s knowing your teammates – some you can give it to early, some need it right by the basket. And it’s having the ball in your hands that much.”

Great teammates obviously don’t hurt, although one of the women ahead of her in the 1,000 Club – Tine Freil – played on mostly .500 teams at Pacific. That reflects Stockton’s GU days, when he set up nearly a third of his teammates’ field goals. In GU’s rich point guard history, only one player approaches that figure.

Courtney Vandersloot.

Different time, different teams, different game, far different pace.

“You can’t compare,” reasoned Graves, “but even here at Point Guard U. with Stockton and (Dan) Dickau and Blake Stepp and all the rest, I’m not sure she’s not the best.”

Or at least something out of the routine.


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