Steal, pass, layup. It can still be that elementary.
In the deciding moments of Gonzaga’s 69-58 women’s basketball victory over San Diego on Saturday, it happened twice in the space of maybe 30 seconds – guard Taelor Karr picking the pocket of the Toreros’ Amy Kame, and then locating a teammate flashing down court. Not unlike a ratty security blanket fetched from a closet shelf, because of these easy points the Zags would be less vulnerable at the finish to whatever long 3s USD might wing in late, or even their own frailties.
Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves sounded downright nostalgic about it all.
“We don’t see them as much any more,” he said, “and we didn’t see many tonight.”
And not long after that, he said this:
“Twenty-one and three,” he allowed. “Sounds pretty good. As good as we were last year, we weren’t 21-3.”
OK, they were 20-4. A split hair is still two hairs.
The evolution going on with Graves’ team at McCarthey Athletic Center this season is interesting from just about any angle. Here in Year 1 A.C. (After Courtney), the Zags have managed to chisel out a better record and compile arguably a better resume – and do it in front of 1,200 more witnesses every game than they did when they had the Showtime Kid luring them through the doors.
They’re still working on an identity – and Graves on the approach.
“The last three years, it was more of an orchestra,” he said. “It was beauty. We’re more of a garage rock band now. It’s not always pretty, but in the end we’re making music and it’s effective.”
That it was another headbangers ball against the USD was no surprise. The Toreros prefer to play in second gear compared to Gonzaga’s traditional overdrive, and if they’re somewhat challenged on offense, they’re unlikely to let you go unchallenged, either.
Even when point guard Courtney Vandersloot was the Bulldogs’ maestro, the Zags rarely found the HOV lane against the Toreros, but it’s telling how often they get, well, stuck in traffic these days.
“It’s taken awhile to figure out (playing without Vandersloot),” Graves admitted, “and that’s why we’ve had some sluggish games that haven’t been as pretty. And honestly I think we’re still figuring it out. I start three transfers. There’s no true point guard – Jazmine (Redmon) plays one on TV, so to speak, and so does Taelor, but they do a great job.”
Well, in fairness, one of Graves’ transfers, Katelan Redmon, has been in the program for four years now. But the point about his half-points is well taken.
“It slows us down,” he said. “We’re not getting as many easy baskets.”
No kidding. Against West Coast Conference opponents, the Bulldogs are scoring half as many fast-break points as they were a year ago. Indeed, they had as many as 28 in one game last season. They barely topped that figure in the last four.
The nation’s top-scoring team in 2011 is off nearly 10 points a game. Gonzaga’s field-goal accuracy has dropped four percentage points. Assists and the assist/turnover ratio have fallen, as well.
“We’re still in the top 10 nationally – great numbers,” Graves noted. “But it’s because we’re not getting the baskets in transition we used to.”
But there are upsides. The Zags look to be incrementally better on defense, and Graves insists they’re a better half-court team. They certainly come at you from more angles: In the last 18 games, six different players have led the team in scoring.
“You might have to juggle things around until you find out who’s on that night,” Graves said. “But it makes us tougher to guard. They can’t game plan for one or two players.”
Of course, game planning for Vandersloot was often in vain anyway.
Whatever the aesthetics, results count – and the Zags have them. Three wins over top-40 RPI teams outside the conference, and they’re a game up on the best WCC field in years, with four teams in the top 100. Next: second-place Brigham Young, where the Zags start with a disadvantage. Cougars coach Jeff Judkins, the one-time Boston Celtic, “is the only coach in the league who can beat me 1-on-1,” Graves joked.
But at least the atmosphere won’t be quite as fevered as the one in which GU’s men fainted the other night.
That will come later. Graves can’t wait.
“I think we’re going to be a tough out come March,” he said.
Even if the baskets won’t come any easier then.
John Blanchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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