KINGSTON, R.I. – Kayla Standish knew it was over. They all did.
And so with 44 seconds remaining in Gonzaga’s loss to Kentucky on Sunday night in the Sweet 16 of the women’s NCAA basketball tournament, Zags coach Kelly Graves made his final substitutions and Standish and Kelly Bowen joined fellow senior starter Katelan Redmon on the bench.
In a touching moment, Graves embraced his seniors individually and let them know how proud they had made him.
“I knew the game was over,” said Standish, who finished with a game-high 25 points. “It’s hard playing the last few minutes when you know. We were all just trying to keep a stiff upper lip until we got to the bench.”
“When we walked off the court, coach gave us a hug and told us he loved us,” Standish added, her voice cracking before a long pause. “I believe him. I know how much he loves us, and this team, and this program.”
The program’s senior class – Standish, Bowen, transfer Redmon, who had 10 points, seven rebounds and three assists on Sunday, sub Shannon Reader, who added three points and played important minutes, and walk-on Molly Anderson, who appeared in 10 games this season – accomplished what few in the nation have.
They collected 115 wins, four West Coast Conference titles, and played in 12 NCAA tournament games – including three straight Sweet 16 appearances and a 2011 run to the Elite Eight before losing to top-seeded Stanford.
The only other Division I programs in the nation to accomplish what Gonzaga did in the past four years in terms of regular-season and tournament wins are Stanford, Connecticut, Baylor and Duke – all of which are among this year’s Elite Eight field as No. 1 or No. 2 seeds.
“That’s pretty good company to be in,” Graves said. “I’m proud of that.”
“I don’t want to minimize what this group has done,” he added. “We got, I wouldn’t say further than I thought we would get, but with what we lost last year – actually the last two years – to do what we did this year is incredible, and that’s why I’m not too emotional right now.
“Honestly, we did a lot this year.”
Zags handle pressure
Prior to the game against Kentucky, the Bulldogs took down sixth-seeded Rutgers in the first round and third-seeded Miami in the second round by rising to the occasion against two physical, tough teams.
They faced an even bigger challenge in the Wildcats, who led the nation in forced turnovers this season – averaging over 26 a game with a full-court pressure defense Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell dubbed, “40 minutes of dread.”
On Sunday, the Southeastern Conference-champion Wildcats only forced 10 turnovers against Gonzaga, while the Bulldogs (28-6) forced Kentucky (28-6) to hand the ball over 14 times.
“For the most part we handled their pressure in the full court,” Graves said. “But we didn’t execute well enough in the half court and we weren’t at our best.”
The most critical game-changing factors proved to be Kentucky’s lights-out 3-point shooting and 17 offensive rebounds.
“When you’re outshot twelve 3s to one,” Graves said, “it’s not going to end well for you most of the time.”
While the Wildcats have played a deep bench all season, Graves tightened his in the postseason. On Sunday, 12 Bulldogs saw action.
Redshirt freshman and Pasco, Wash., native Danielle Walter scored five off the bench for Gonzaga, inluding the only 3-pointer of the game for the Bulldogs. Reader had three points, and first off the bench Jazmine Redmon finished with two points, two assists and four steals.
Freshman Sunny Greinacher, junior Meghan Winters, sophomore Stephanie Golden and freshman Keani Albanez – who recorded the team’s lone blocked shot – also checked in for the Zags.