Like the pitcher in baseball and the quarterback in football, everything starts with the point guard in basketball.
That’s why the Arena is the place to be tonight for the Sweet 16 round in the Spokane Regional of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.
Top-seeded Stanford (31-2) and fifth-seeded North Carolina (28-8), who square off about 8:30, have outstanding senior point guards in Jeanette Pohlen and Cetera DeGraffenreid, respectively. But it is the point guards for No. 11 Gonzaga (30-4) and No. 7 Louisville (22-12), who tip off at 6, who are the talk of the tournament.
The Bulldogs feature senior Courtney Vandersloot, who became the first player in NCAA history to surpass 2,000 points and 1,000 assists in Monday’s win over third-seeded UCLA. The Cardinals have freshman Shoni Schimmel, who drilled six 3-pointers en route to 33 points to spark Tuesday’s upset of second-seeded Xavier.
“She’s a fantastic player,” said Louisville coach Jeff Walz, who thinks so highly of Schimmel and two other freshmen he put them on the cover of the Cardinals’ media guide. “I tell people all the time, you’ve got basketball players and kids that play basketball. She’s a basketball player.”
She certainly has the attention of Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves, who knows about great guards.
“I think they’re similar in a lot of ways, especially in their court vision,” he said. “They make some spectacular passes. I’m not sure (Schimmel) is as quick as Courtney with the basketball. She’s a little bigger, and I think a little bit more diverse. She can roll down into the post, and she has kind of a low-post game as well as better range than Courtney.
“She’s phenomenal as a freshman I can’t wait to see her as an upperclassman. I think she’s got a really high ceiling. And she plays with so much confidence. She’s way ahead of most freshmen in just her presence on the court.”
The Cardinals whisked her out of Oregon, which means Gonzaga obviously knew about her.
“She kind of made it clear that she was looking for something else and we were pretty loaded with good young guards,” Graves said.
Graves and Walz have forged a close enough friendship that Walz sent a text after the Cardinals’ win that put them in the Sweet 16 opposite the Bulldogs.
The coaches got to know each other in Romania last summer at the European Championships when it turned out they were recruiting the same German post.
“We were there four days and there wasn’t a lot to do,” Graves said. “We hung out. I enjoyed him. He’s a good guy, a funny guy, energetic.”
Graves also couldn’t resist pointing out that 6-foot-4 Sonja Greinacher signed with Gonzaga.
Three Bulldogs are well aware of Schimmel.
Junior Shannon Reader is from Lake Oswego, Ore., and saw Schimmel when she played at Hermiston, Ore., and again after she transferred to Franklin, in a Portland suburb, when Reader went home to watch a state tournament.
“She’s a shooter,” Reader said. “It doesn’t matter how far. In high school she would take just one step across the half-court line and go up. The girl will shoot from anywhere and she can shoot good.”
Freshmen Jasmine Redmon, from Mead, and Danielle Walter, from Pasco, were teammates on the same AAU team, playing against Schimmel’s team and again when they played in the Washington-Oregon All-Star game.
“I have to keep her in front of me and keep a hand up at all times,” Redmon said. “She’s amazing. She can shoot really deep. She’s just an all-around player.”
Walter, who also played an all-star game and a summer tournament with Schimmel, had advice for Redmon and the other GU guards.
“Don’t go for her fakes,” said Walter, who is redshirting. “Keep her in front. What she tries to do is fake you out.”
While the first game tonight features a pair of wise-cracking male coaches, the second features two Hall of Famers. Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer won her 800th game this season and Sylvia Hatchell of North Carolina got to 800 two seasons ago.
Stanford has a well-known reputation for academic excellence. Hatchell let it be known that academics were first at UNC when asked if the Tar Heels thought about staying a couple of days in Albuquerque, N.M., after the first weekend instead of criss-crossing the country again.
“We did think about it, but we are a very academic school,” she said. “We got to campus at 6 o’clock (Tuesday) morning and our kids went to class. And they went to class Wednesday and Thursday and then we flew back out here yesterday.”