One thing about basketball this time of year: There’s always room for another somebody special.
For all the milestones passed, records set, poster poetry inspired and oohs aahed, Courtney Vandersloot is, in the end, still just one person, albeit 68 inches of giant. The Gonzaga Bulldogs may go just as far in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament as she, uh, Sloots them – or they may go further, now that the Zags have unleashed Kayla Standish.
Now, yes, she has been around all season and no wallflower at that – 17 points on an average night, 20 or more often enough. But with 10 minutes to go Monday night against UCLA, the McCarthey Athletic Center scoreboard showed her with 30 – and the thought occurred, “Hey, the Zags may have something here.”
What to make, then, of the fact that she didn’t score again and Gonzaga still eased away to an 89-75 victory – a record 30th?
Well, as we know, the Zags also have Something Else.
Vandersloot will always be the swizzle in Gonzaga’s shtick, but the long-weekend emergence of Standish also went a long way in allowing the Zags to book passage yet again to the Sweet 16 – this one just five days and a five-minute drive away at the Spokane Arena.
“I’ve been pounding on her for three years,” Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves said, “telling her, ‘You are special. You are a great player.’
“Sometimes, I think, she doesn’t always believe in herself.”
Hmm. This might not help then, because the numbers themselves are difficult to believe.
In Saturday’s first-round win over Iowa, the 6-foot-2 junior scored a career-high 30, making 11 of 12 shots in the second half. She matched it against the Bruins on 11-of-14 shooting.
That’s 22 of 25 in a 50-minute stretch. And we’re not talking layup drill here.
The two 14-footers from the baseline that got her going in the first half were a portent, and the 3-pointer she swished for her last bucket gave Gonzaga the lead it would never relinquish.
In between were three straight baskets that closed out an 11-0 Gonzaga run that changed the tenor of the game early in the second half – a turn-around 8-footer, a layup off an inbounds pass and a delicate 16-foot jumper – and speak to the diversity of her offensive game.
“She’s a very good player with a great mid-range game,” UCLA forward Jasmine Dixon said. “Every time she got the ball she was open, which gave her the green light, and every time she scored.”
It certainly must have seemed that way to the Bruins.
The Pacific-10 Conference runners-up pride themselves on pace and, well, point-deprivation, and yet they curiously fell in with Gonzaga’s tempo Monday night and were carved up for their trouble. Only once had they given up more than 70 points this season – 83 in two overtimes to Notre Dame.
Opponents shoot just 38 percent against them; Gonzaga sizzled at 55.8. Of the Zags’ 29 baskets, 23 were assisted – a season-best in that regard.
“Standish did a great job of really working the baseline area while Vanderlsoot controlled the top of the floor,” UCLA coach Nikki Caldwell said. “They had that 1-to-4 look that a lot of great teams have.”
That requires a low post player with a bit of chameleon in her.
“They’re so high in their zone,” Vandersloot said of the Bruins, “it seems like they’re out on the perimeter. Kayla does a great job of finding gaps in the zone. It’s tough to guard somebody like that when she’s so – what’s the word? – she can do so much. Versatile. You’ve got to guard her on the baseline, and then she can take it to the block and get an and-one.”
Noted Graves, “Maybe sometimes you don’t expect someone 6-2 to shoot it like that, so you play her a little softer for that reason.”
Funny thing is, the Zags seemed to lose track of her for a couple stretches themselves. And yet she never surrendered the rhythm.
“It was just now or never,” Standish said. “We deserve to be going where we’re going and we needed someone to step up. But everyone’s effort was amazing. We weren’t going to lose this game.”
With her occasionally wavering confidence, maybe Standish didn’t seem the likeliest of Zags to make these NCAA games her own. Now the unlikely part of her seems to have been overwhelmed.
“(Courtney) and Kayla literally took the game with two hands and took it over,” teammate Kelly Bowen said. “There was nothing UCLA could do. They had no answer.
“It’s a privilege to be on their team.”
Oh, it’s still Vandersloot’s team. But she has something special riding shotgun.