March 28, 2011 in Sports

Blanchette: Vandersloot feels the love after finale

By Correspondent
 

One final no-look pass, to a teammate streaking along the baseline, a sure-thing basket in a long-lost game, a last taste of the kind of thing that begat not just a crowd for women’s basketball in Spokane but a culture.

And then … the shot off the glass, off the rim, just off altogether.

The night in a nutshell for Courtney Vandersloot and the Gonzaga Bulldogs.

Scant seconds later, a whistle and a stoppage of play, and the woman who created both art and an audience for it walked to the bench, neither slumped in disappointment nor grim with defiance. Even before the 11,646 who filled the Spokane Arena were all the way to their feet – the Stanford supporters, too, just as quickly and earnestly as the locals – Vandersloot waved her thanks and felt … what?

“Different than I thought it would be,” she admitted. “I couldn’t help but just enjoy that 10 seconds, to walk off and hear the fans cheering, because I know deep in my heart they love us and are just as proud of us right now as they would be if we won the game.”

No, the Zags didn’t win. Just because you’re elite, as in Elite Eight, doesn’t mean you can’t get drummed out of the NCAA tournament like just another 11 seed – even in your hometown.

Stanford – bigger and better in nearly all facets from start to finish – booked its trip to a fourth straight Final Four with an 83-60 bludgeoning Monday, the second time in that stretch they’ve done it in this city. That was the “right side of history” Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer urged her team to be on – not the side that would allow an embraceable double-digit seed to reach the deciding weekend for the first time.

It was very nearly unfair. After all, the Zags had just one Vandersloot and the Cardinal had two Ogwumike sisters, who together had more rebounds (26) than did Gonzaga (25).

By halftime, the Cardinal had a nine-point lead and Vandersloot had already accounted for 21 of GU’s 38 points – 18 in a row at one juncture.

“I told them at halftime, ‘Courtney has big shoulders, but she needs help,’” coach Kelly Graves said. “There was no way we win the game with Courtney getting two-thirds of our points, just no way.”

Sure enough, VanDerveer dusted off a rare zone and all driving lanes disappeared. No other Zag could make a basket – “Honestly it looked like at times some of our players didn’t want to shoot,” Graves said – and the Stanford lead reached 20 quickly, giving the entire building time to collect their thoughts about an unprecedented season and an unparalleled player.

“You saw all the people that were here and the people that have been following us, make no mistake about it, they’re Gonzaga fans,” said Graves, his voice beginning to crack.

“But Courtney Vandersloot brought these people here, and she deserves a ton of credit for that. She has made Gonzaga women’s basketball cool, and something people notice and love.”

And love intensely, something Vandersloot grasped well before the delirium of the past 10 days.

“This isn’t the first time we’ve had big crowds,” she pointed out. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, it’s tournament time’ and everyone wants to come. Even when we were blowing some teams out by 40, they were there because they love us and the love we get – not just during the games, but walking into the street and having them recognize us – is not something a lot of people get to experience.”

It’s a kind of fulfillment even a Final Four might not have provided.

“My first year we didn’t even get to the tournament,” she said, “and the last year we’re in the Elite Eight. I don’t understand how you can’t be happy with what you’ve been a part of.”

This would extend to her coach, as well. Graves acknowledged life after No. 21 has him “waking up in a cold sweat” but he is likely to have to weigh his own future here, being the hottest brand going on the coaching market at the moment. There is a job open across the state at Washington, but it doesn’t even have to be that one.

And, yes, it could very well be the job he already has, too.

“I think he’s a Zag for a while,” Vandersloot said, smiling. “I was giving him a hard time when the U-Dub spot opened up and he just shakes his head – in a good way. He couldn’t leave this. He’s got something special here, I think. I don’t know why he would.

“If he does, I’m going to take his spot,” she cracked.

Does the woman know how to find a finisher, or what?


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