Defender from Down Under
Gonzaga junior plays key role in team’s success
The longest pause in Gonzaga’s game with UCLA in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament on Monday came when Bulldogs forward Kelly Bowen got whacked in the nose.
While she sat on the bench as trainer Peter Clark tried to get the blood stopped, the officials automatically checked the replay monitor for assurance there was not a flagrant foul, which is a point of emphasis this season.
When the game resumed, temporarily without Bowen, the Bruins went on to a 38-35 halftime lead, helped by a 21-14 rebounding advantage that included seven offensive rebounds. But it wasn’t a coincidence that when she returned the 11th-seeded Bulldogs battled back to pull off the 89-75 upset against the third-seeded Bruins with a 19-12 edge on the boards.
“What makes her the perfect fit is she has no ego,” GU coach Kelly Graves said of his only starter that doesn’t average double figures. “She doesn’t need touches to keep her happy. She understands she’s not the first option (on offense), but there are other ways to contribute.
“She’s a tremendous defender, that gets lost. She’s a solid rebounder. Her numbers are great when you look at minutes played. She’s one of the few players that can mix it up. It’s kind of ironic that she’s the one that got the bloody nose.”
He said Bowen has the ability to guard a power forward to a high-scoring guard, versatility the Bulldogs (30-4) are going to need when they face seventh-seeded Louisville (22-12) Saturday at 6 p.m. in the Sweet 16 at the Arena.
Bowen, a 6-foot junior, understands and embraces her role.
“I’m unique in that you never know what you’re going to get,” she said. “I could have a different job for every game, whether it’s defensive, being a leader or providing a rebounding or offensive presence. It seems to change every game.”
What doesn’t change is what she means to her teammates.
“She’s a great teammate,” junior forward Kayla Standish said. “She’s so aggressive and she’s always trying to lift people up that are down. She’s always willing to give for someone else.”
“Easy going, that’s the best way to explain her,” senior point guard Courtney Vandersloot added. “She seems like she doesn’t have a care in the world. It helps her on and off the court, it helps her in every situation.
“With that happy-go-lucky attitude, even on the floor when she makes a mistake she just smiles. That’s good for a player, although Coach doesn’t always like it. It keeps us relaxed, knowing nothing gets under her skin. She’s going to be a rock.”
That would seem to fit the stereotype of an Australian, who, when it came right down to it, was an easy recruit when Graves wanted to tap into that pipeline like some of his West Coast Conference peers.
“I sent (then assistant) Jennifer Mountain down there and told her not to come back without a player,” he said.
Bowen caught the attention of Mountain, who is now the head coach at Santa Clara.
Graves had seen some film by the time Bowen’s traveling team came to the States, which she also used for official visits to New Mexico, Fresno State, San Diego and Gonzaga.
“I wasn’t sure about college basketball until the visits, but it sounded like fun,” Bowen said. “Gonzaga stood out because of the smallness of the school and the family atmosphere the basketball team has.”
“By the time she got here, our mind was made up,” Graves said. “I just love that kid. I did from Day One.”
Of course, there were the usual adjustments to bigger, faster and more athletic players at the college level, plus the fact that every player is good compared to just one or two on a team. Then there were a few adjustments.
“The first day I wore my (low top) running shoes,” she said. “Everybody else wore their (high top) basketball boots.”
Standish said there were some issues with Bowen’s accent at first.
“Especially because I was really shy,” Standish added. “I would just nod my head and smile because I didn’t want to ask her what the hell she was talking about.”
But those two became fast friends with Bowen spending breaks with the Standish family in Ellensburg.
“It’s pretty hard,” Bowen said of just getting home for about six weeks at the end of the school year. “I do pretty well. I’m pretty close to my roommates (Standish, Shannon Reader and Janelle Bekkering) and their families. They’ve pretty much adopted me.”
That impresses Vandersloot, whose parents haven’t missed five games in her career despite living on the West Side.
“I couldn’t,” Vandersloot said. “I only think a few individuals can do that but Kelly is one of them. She just has that rare ability, that independence. She makes the best of every situation.”
Graves had another take, considering the seasons in Australia are opposite from here.
“The one negative,” he said, “is the school year goes through winter and in summer when it’s nice here she goes home and it’s winter there, so she has four straight years of winters.”
But again, that’s just one more thing that doesn’t faze Bowen at all, who has obviously adjusted everything, including this March Madness thing.
“I had absolutely no idea,” she said. “I think it’s awesome. I read a quote that said it is arguably one of the greatest sporting events in the whole world. I’m going to go ahead and agree with them.”