Haiden Palmer’s confident swagger doesn’t just exist on the basketball court.
While fielding questions in a postgame press conference following No. 11 Gonzaga’s first-round NCAA tournament victory over sixth-seeded Rutgers, Palmer was asked about her one-on-one battle with Rutgers junior Erica Wheeler in the second half.
Wheeler, who led all players with 28 points, knocked down four NBA-range 3-pointers late in the game as the Scarlet Knights tried to stage several belated comebacks.
“She just hit some tough shots towards the end,” Palmer allowed. “Great player, but we won the game today.
Most important, she helped pave the way for the Bulldogs to win with 21 points, five steals and four assists and three rebounds.
After picking up her third foul and heading to the bench with 13 minutes, 7 seconds left in the game, Palmer returned to the floor at the 10-minute mark and drained a 3-pointer. She then came up with a big steal in a passing lane and seconds later was sent to the line where she made 1 of 2 free throws and gave the Bulldogs a 15-point lead at 61-46.
“When she’s on, she can be one of those players that is difficult to stop,” Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves said. “Every once in a while she goes Dwayne Wade on us. There’s a reason she wears No. 3.
“Tonight she took charge,” Graves added. “That’s quite a night against a really good team.”
Palmer, who transferred to Gonzaga from Oregon State and redshirted last season when the Bulldogs advanced to the Elite Eight, was just happy to not have to watch from the bench this time around.
“It was amazing,” Palmer said of playing in her first NCAA tournament game. “I had to stop myself from crying after the game, actually – biggest game of my life.”
A sizeable task
The Zags’ game plan Monday will certainly include a way to defend Miami’s 6-foot-6 junior post Shawnice Wilson.
It won’t be the first time Wilson, who is called “Pepper” by family and teammates, has faced Gonzaga. Wilson was a freshman at Pittsburgh in 2009 when the Panthers met the Bulldogs in the second round in Seattle.
After Gonzaga knocked off Xavier 74-59 in the first round, the Bulldogs went to the wire against Pittsburgh before the Panthers prevailed 65-60. Wilson played in the game.
Wilson transferred to Miami. Not much was lost in having to sit out a year because it allowed her recover from knee surgery.
She was a menace on the boards against Idaho State. She finished with a game-high 14 to go with nine points.
“I knew coming into this game that I would have an advantage,” Wilson said of facing the shorter Bengals. “Obviously I’m 6-6 and their tallest player is about 6-1, 6-2. So before the game we discussed how it’s important for us to use our size as an advantage.”
A big thank-you
ISU coach Seton Sobolewski expressed gratitude to his team.
“I told them in the locker room they helped me make a dream of mine come true,” Sobolewski said. “As a coach you work hard you whole life and you hope you get an opportunity to be a head coach some day and you hope that you have a team … that can make a run to make a championship (and) maybe play in the NCAA tournament. I’m sure we’ve made some other dreams come true along the way, but I told them I’m very appreciative of everything they’ve done.”
The future looks bright, too. The Bengals graduate just one senior and bring back four starters.
A look ahead
Miami coach Katie Meier got to watch Gonzaga for a half. What she saw made a huge impression.
“I’m not going to get a lot of sleep from now until that game,” she said. “They are awesome. They are awesome. They are awesome. Everything that I’m just bragging about my team you can just turn around and say about Gonzaga in terms of how they share the ball. … They’re in sync. We’ve got a lot of work to do.” We’ve got a lot of court that we have to cover.”
“They’re an incredibly talented team and just so, so, so well coached. I almost have jealousy about how well coached they are. They’ve got a heck of a cast.”