They are Elite.
The magical season for the Gonzaga women’s basketball team continued Saturday night – to the delight of 10,717 fans at the Spokane Arena – as the Bulldogs earned a spot in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament with a hard-fought 76-69 win over Louisville.
With their 21st straight win, the 11th-seeded Bulldogs (31-4) became the lowest seed to reach the final eight.
They’ll meet top-seeded Stanford (32-2), which defeated No. 5 seed North Carolina 72-65, Monday night at 6 for a chance to take their magic to the Final Four in Indianapolis next weekend.
Gonzaga did it with a nearly flawless 30 minutes behind its point-guard-for-the-ages and hung on as the Cardinals (22-13) stormed back, cutting a 20-point lead with less than 15 minutes to play to three with under 5 minutes to go.
“They switched to that zone and that kind of caught us off-guard,” said point guard Courtney Vandersloot, who set the NCAA single-season assist record and the West Coast Conference career steals record. “We were playing back on our heels, we were kind of playing not to lose.”
The Bulldogs shot 50 percent in the first half and held Louisville to 34.4 percent in building a 35-24 lead.
The Zags picked up where they left off, starting the second half with an 8-2 burst with Vandersloot scoring the first four and then setting up Kelly Bowen’s three-point play for a 43-26 lead at the 18:15 mark. That was Vandersloot’s 356th assist of the season, passing the total Suzie McConnell had for Penn State in 1987.
The Cardinals got back to within 12, but Vandersloot, who finished with 29 points, seven assists, seven steals and five rebounds, converted a three-point play and then watched as Katelan Redmon and Bowen assisted on each other’s baskets for a 51-31 lead.
“I think it was our defense,” Louisville senior Keshia Hines said. “We weren’t finding people in transition and I think that carried on to our offense.”
It was still 59-44 on two free throws by Vandersloot at the 9:39 mark, but after that the Cardinals went on a 13-2 run fueled by four straight turnovers and pounding the ball inside to the 6-foot-2 Hines while freshman Shoni Schimmel came to life.
“Trying to word this very nicely,” Cardinals coach Jeff Walz said, “I told them we needed to play harder. I told them not to worry about the three on the floor that weren’t on the other team.”
He pointed to Gonzaga’s 24-of-28 performance from the foul line – including 13 of 14 from Vandersloot – while his team was just 5 of 9. But after Tia Gibbs’ short jumper made it 65-62 with 2:58 to go, the Zags closed the game by making 11 of 12 free throws.
“The atmosphere definitely gave us some energy at the end,” said Gonzaga senior Janelle Bekkering, who made nine straight free throws, including six down the stretch, to finish with 15 points. “They just kind of picked us up.”
Bekkering also had the lead role in guarding Schimmel, who finished with 18 points but made just 1 of 13 shots in the first half.
“She’s definitely a great player and a hard one to guard,” Bekkering said. “My main focus was to stay on her all game and get a hand up because she can shoot from deep.”
Schimmel only had two 3s, including one at the start of the rally, but they were deep. She also turned two of four straight GU turnovers into layups.
“We dug ourselves a hole in the beginning and had to fight back,” Tia Gibbs said. “One thing that we don’t do is quit.”
But it was Bekkering who hit a clutch shot, followed by a Kayla Standish basket, that stopped the Louisville run. The Cardinals’ last gasp ended with an ugly turnover and an air ball on consecutive possessions with about 90 seconds left.
“I think it was more, ‘Oh my God, we’re up by 20 and we’re playing for an Elite Eight. That doesn’t seem right,’ ” Bowen said. “Normally these games are decided by one or two points. I think we relaxed but when it was close we tightened it up again.”
While the Cardinals were focusing on Standish, who was coming off consecutive 30-point games, Bekkering scored 15 points, Bowen 12 and Redmon 10.
“I really do think they keyed on her,” Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves said. “But other people stepped up. That’s what we’ve been doing all year. That’s our M.O. – it’s never the same player.”
The Cardinals were hurt when leading scorer and rebounder Monique Reid left the game with an injury after aout 5 minutes.
Hines, who had 17 points, and Asia Taylor, who scored 10 plus 12 rebounds, picked up the slack inside, helping build a 40-33 rebounding edge.
The Cardinals shot 54.3 percent in the second half and held Gonzaga to 37 percent.
Gonzaga 76, Louisville 69
Percentages: FG .439, FT .857.
3-Point Goals: 2-7, .286 (Vandersloot 1-1, Bowen 1-3, K. Redmon 0-1, Bekkering 0-2).
Team Rebounds: 3.
Blocked Shots: 3 (Standish 2, Raap).
Turnovers: 13 (Vandersloot 7, K. Redmon 3, Standish 2, Bowen).
Steals: 13 (Vandersloot 7, Bekkering 3, K. Redmon 2, Bowen).
Technical Fouls: Bench.
Percentages: FG .448, FT .556.
3-Point Goals: 4-16, .250 (Gibbs 2-4, Schimmel 2-10, Slaughter 0-1, Burke 0-1).
Team Rebounds: 7.
Blocked Shots: 1 (Taylor).
Turnovers: 19 (Tay 5, Gibbs 4, Taylor 4, Schimmel 2, Vails, Hines, Burke).
Steals: 8 (Gibbs 3, Schimmel 3, Taylor, Hines).
Technical Fouls: None.