KINGSTON, R.I. – Coming off an Elite Eight appearance and making a return trip to the Sweet 16 for the third straight season, there aren’t overwhelming amounts of firsts left for Kelly Graves – at least on a basketball court.
But of all things, the Gonzaga women’s basketball coach didn’t expect to cross chest-bumping off that list.
“In all my years,” Graves said, “I’ve never chest-bumped.”
Enter explosive 5-foot-8 guard Haiden Palmer, who changed all that when she dove for a loose ball in the 11th-seeded Bulldogs’ victory over No. 3-seeded Miami last week at The Kennel.
Palmer twisted with Miami’s Stefanie Yderstrom on a play that forced the Hurricanes to call a timeout, and Graves got caught up in a moment he later hoped, “the cameras didn’t catch.”
“That’s Haiden, though,” he said. “She excited me like that. I just went out there, and I’m almost embarrassed, because it was a horribly botched chest bump. She kind of fell back, so I grabbed her and then kind of pushed her and she went to the bench with this bewildered smile on her face and the whole team started laughing.”
It was a sweet moment in a game that captured a lighter side to Palmer, who has changed much more than the way Graves celebrates a spectacular play.
She’s changed the way the Bulldogs play.
“I hear about her from the fans – and there are a lot more of them these days, it’s funny how that works – and the word they use is heart. She plays with a lot of heart,” Graves said. “In the past we’ve always played hard, but I’ve never really heard that we play tough.
“I think she brought that to us, and it’s pretty sweet to watch.”
An even sweeter moment for Palmer is rapidly approaching.
After transferring from Oregon State to Gonzaga in 2010, Palmer watched from the sidelines last season while she redshirted because of NCAA transfer rules. Part of those rules: Redshirt transfers can’t travel with the team.
So while the Bulldogs were fortunate that their entire run to the Elite Eight happened in Spokane – the first two rounds at the McCarthey Athletic Center and the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight at the Arena – Palmer couldn’t even ride the same bus with the team. She had to meet the team there.
“I think that was really hard on her, which is normal for redshirts – especially transfers,” Graves said. “But I’ll tell you what. The day that season ended – she changed gears that next day. It was like she knew it was over and a light went on. She was ready to really, truly prepare to play this season.”
Those preparations – the extra shooting and weightlifting with former teammate Courtney Vandersloot – are now paying huge dividends, for Palmer and for Gonzaga.
Palmer is finally playing in her first NCAA tournament and has already led the Bulldogs to a first-round victory over sixth-seeded Rutgers and made several key plays in the win over Miami.
Now, she’s set for the Bulldogs’ Sweet 16 date with No. 2-seeded Kentucky on Sunday in Kingston, R.I.
“That was a big deal to me when I chose (Gonzaga),” Palmer said. “They had just gone to the Sweet Sixteen and I wanted to be a part of that. Now that it’s here? Gosh. I can’t even put it into words. I actually cried after the Miami game.
“However far we go, when this is all done, it’s going to take awhile for me to realize what just happened. I mean, this is what you imagine as a kid when you shoot baskets in the front yard. I’m trying to get us to that Elite Eight again. Who knows. Why not a Final Four?”
Coming from the person that inspired Graves’ first chest-bump – that’s a fair enough question. And it doesn’t get much sweeter than that.
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