Sometime Friday, the 10,000th ticket was sold to Saturday’s regional semifinals of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament at the Spokane Arena, so the latest cult of Gonzaga hoops is officially in full dither.
And why not? An engaging team, a superlative player and the game’s two-ring circus pitching its tent five minutes from campus – that’s a heady combination.
“I’m a little jealous,” admitted Shannon Mathews.
Really, she needn’t be. Virtually every basketball phenomenon is rooted in some sort of early humility and marked by baby steps, stubbed toes or unrequited hopes which serve as a foundation for the sort of thing the Zags are experiencing now.
Coach Kelly Graves took a spin in the WABAC machine on Friday as the Bulldogs prepared for tonight’s Sweet 16 meeting with Louisville, stopping at a few old roadside attractions of futility: suiting up just six players on a trip to Sacramento State his first year, seeing four players felled by ACL injuries, home games played in front of a whisper of witnesses.
“I always tell people my first team we went 0-14 in the league,” he said, “and I said, ‘Don’t let the record fool you – we weren’t that good.’”
But the hard knocks are always taken for granted. It’s the fall that occurs when you think you’ve climbed the mountain that hurts the most.
Around that initial 0-14 slog, Graves signed a freshman class that would tow the Zags out of the mire and, come their senior year, win 27 of their first 29 games. But then Mathews sprained her right ankle in the West Coast Conference semifinals and the Bulldogs saw Santa Clara rain in 15 3-pointers on its home court to win the final – and the NCAA berth that goes with it.
And Selection Sunday – it was still Sunday back then – became Dejection Monday. There was no at-large room for a 27-3 team.
“We had no history,” reasoned Graves, “so the NCAA didn’t let us in.”
Actually, it was the WCC that didn’t have much in the way of history. The Zags had victories over NCAA tournament teams Montana and Utah, and their only two losses were to Arizona State, which reached the Sweet 16, and New Mexico, another tournament team.
“That was a really good team,” Graves insisted. “That team probably gets in now. Rae Jewell was a bulldog. Ashley Burke scored 1,700 points. Shannon was a great player.
“And I apologize to them all the time. Shannon comes to all our games in Southern California and I say, ‘I’m sorry I didn’t get you there, because it’s such a great thing, a great experience.’ ”
Mathews teaches physical education at St. Patrick’s, a private K-8 school in North Hollywood. If she wasn’t Courtney Vandersloot version 1.0, she was at least the lever for all the heavy lifting that group did.
She remembers being agog at playing in the new McCarthey Athletic Center that year and even filling it up once (“now that’s kind of standard”) after the area-code crowds of her first two years. And she remembers losing in the WCC final her junior year sort of crystallizing the vision for what she wanted to accomplish as a senior.
“We matured a little bit and changed our team rules and tried to be more disciplined among ourselves,” she said. “We developed a different attitude and tried to pass it on to the younger players. It can’t be about your social life or your boyfriend or what you’re going to do on weekends. It’s got to be about getting in the gym and working, and taking care of the details that make you better.”
She was gone, of course, before Vandersloot arrived, but the approach remains – Graves can’t chase his star out of the gym nowadays. Mathews sees them in NCAA tournament games on television “and can’t sit down.” She watches Vandersloot make passes that “somebody else wouldn’t even know are available and makes me feel like I should get out and play.”
Making her feel full and empty at the same time.
“It still stings when I watch them play,” Mathews said. “It’s forever going to be a bittersweet thing. We missed out and it was our last chance and I feel the little pit in my stomach.
“But at least I like to think we were the start of something great. Look at them – in the Sweet 16 for a second straight year. Maybe they’re not there if without our team climbing out of that hole.”
The current Zags didn’t get to do that. Maybe they can feel a little jealous, too.