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Thu., Nov. 8, 2012

Gonzaga has talent, work ethic to make another NCAA tournament run

How long can the ground-breaking streak go on for the Gonzaga women’s basketball team?

Not winning a West Coast Conference title, a run that is at eight but still short of the men’s recently-ended run of 11.

Not reaching the NCAA Tournament, which they’ve done four straight years, far shy of the men’s 14 straight.

What the Gonzaga women have done is something that no other Inland Northwest Division I program has accomplished: Three straight runs into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

That’s Elite and Sweet, as an Elite Eight appearance sandwiched between a pair of Sweet 16’s, and once again the Bulldogs are aiming for the top.

“This is as much talent as I’ve had on my team – ever,” said veteran coach Kelly Graves, never one to shy away from expectations. “It’s unproven talent in a lot of cases, it’s young talent. That can make it tough but there’s no reason, with our skill, talent and athletic ability we can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing.

“That doesn’t mean we’re going to, but no one last year thought we were going to do that. (The girls) expect it (but) they don’t take it for granted.”

The Bulldogs will need contributions from untested players, especially freshmen, to keep any streak alive, which is true for the other three area programs – Eastern Washington, Idaho and Washington State – that enter the season with hope of improving.

The number of seniors, and not all are starters, for Bulldogs (two), Eagles (three), Vandals (two) and Cougars (two) barely outnumbers WSU’s freshman class (six).

But across the board the coaches have confidence in their new players.

“Get to know the freshmen’s names,” WSU coach June Daugherty said, “this is a talented group. This freshman class is as good as any in the country.”

Bulldogs green up front

The Bulldogs went 14-2 in the league, 28-6 overall and reached their third regional with a new backcourt. If they make it four, a possibility with the first NCAA tournament weekend at GU for the third-straight season, it will be with a new frontcourt, a somewhat minor concern to Graves.

“We never won a conference championship because of where we were picked,” the coach said after Brigham Young was picked ahead of his team. “We won eight in a row because we’re the best team and we’ve worked the hardest.”

If they do that, inexperience up front won’t be near as nerve-wracking.

Stephanie Golden, a 6-foot-3 junior, and 6-4 sophomore Sunny Greinacher, played a combined 19 minutes a game (7.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg) behind three senior starters last year and their backups are going to be freshmen.

There are five of them, headlined by 6-5 redshirt Shelby Cheslek.

“Shelby has been terrific; she has a shot at being newcomer of the year in conference. She can do a little bit of everything,” Graves said. “I think (the freshmen) will be in the rotation and have a chance to have an impact.”

There are six experienced guards with senior Taelor Karr (7.5 ppg, 4.5 apg) and juniors Haiden Palmer (12.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg) and Jazmine Redmon, the defensive leader, slated to start.

“We have a lot of competition,” Graves said of his 13th team at Gonzaga. “We’re two or three deep in some spots and they know they’re competing every day for time. As young kids are, they’re inconsistent sometimes.

“Our lineup is going to be fluid through Christmas. Our role development is still a work in progress, but I’m very pleased with our progress. We have depth, we have athletic ability, we have talent. We just haven’t had those players separate themselves.”

Eagles look to sophomores

Eagles coach Wendy Schuller is probably putting the fewest eggs in the freshman basket, but that’s because she has four sophomores and two redshirts from last year’s big class.

EWU went 10-6 in the Big Sky Conference, its second-best showing behind the 2010 champs, and 16-14 overall on the back and combined 30.5 points per game from a pair of graduated all-league performers, including the MVP.

“We are obviously going to look very different this year,” said Schuller, who is entering her 12th season. “But good coaches adjust to their personnel and we have a great nucleus of players coming back.”

The most experience is up front with a pair of returning 6-1 starters, senior center Carrie Ojeda (10.2 ppg, 6.9 rpg) and sophomore forward Melissa Williams (4.6, 5.3). The other starter is 6-0 junior wing Aubrey Ashenfelter (6.3, 3.3), who will be asked to step into a bigger role.

“This year we are going to have to score more together, which is one of the things that made us great the year we won the conference title,” Schuller said. “This is going to be a team that on any give night several different players can lead us in scoring.”

The one freshman Schuller raves about is Hayley Hodgins, a 5-10 wing out of Pasco, who redshirted last year.

The Eagles will also count on a pair of sophomores to run the team, 5-1 Kylie Huerta from Covington, Wash., and 5-6 Lexie Nelson, from Butte, who sat out last year after transferring from Montana. Both played in all but one game of their respective freshman seasons.

One worry for the Eagles is replacing a pair of over-sized personalities and leaders.

“If there was anything that would be a slight concern it’s finding that person who is going to really get after it and want the ball and bleed for it,” Schuller said. “I am still waiting to see who steps up to that role.”

Vandals finally deeper

The Vandals were only 12-20 last year but were 6-8 in the Western Athletic Conference, good for fourth and, with an infusion of freshmen, reason for optimism.

“My expectations are always going to be to win the league and go to the NCAA Tournament,” fifth-year coach Jon Newlee said. “We’re not going to use youth as an excuse.”

He could use injuries, which have hit the Vandals hard in his first four years – returning starter Jessica Graham (5.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg) is coming off her third knee surgery – but five freshmen provide depth that didn’t exist before. Well, maybe four as Abi Quinnett, a 6-1 hometown post, is still rehabbing from a knee injury.

Even without Graham up to speed, UI has two great building blocks in 6-1 junior Alyssa Charlston (14.5, 8.8), a first-team preseason pick, and second-team pick Krissy Karr, a 5-6 sophomore point guard, (6.9 ppg, 4.0 apg).

“Alyssa has been getting better and better and she’s no where near where she will be and she’s already a first-team all-league pick,” Newlee said.

“Carr has come back with an edge, she’s toughened up mentally and physically.”

Stacey Barr, a 5-6 sophomore, added 10 points off the bench and Ashley Walters, a 6-4 junior, averaged a block a game.

Despite a combined 10 starts they might not automatically step into starting roles because of the freshman.

Alie Ford, a 6-2 post from Woodinville, Wash., is very strong and very skilled, the coach said, and there is chemistry in the back court because Californians Christina Salvatore and Connie Ballestero played AAU with Karr.

“We’ll use (the freshmen) a lot,” Newlee said. “It depends on how quick they are to assimilate.”

Cougars like incoming frosh

The Cougars, after going 5-13 in the conference made a surprising run to the league tournament semifinals, which, always optimistic coach June Daughtery said, led to the best offseason as she enters her sixth season.

But in the Pac-12, WSU is only picked 10th, which is OK with the coach. She believes her freshmen can help do better than that considering the 13-20 record represented the most overall wins in 16 years.

“This is an extremely talented and competitive class,” Daugherty said. “Everybody is pushing for playing time.”

There were four double figure scorers in two preseason games, all from freshmen, two from Lia Galdeira, a 5-11 guard out of Hawaii.

“I know they picked us 10th,” Daugherty said. “That’s a reflection of how good this league is. It’s wonderful. We love it. It’s a motivator. It’s fun to go out and prove people wrong. The only way you do that is to go out each day and work hard.”

Two starters return in 6-5 senior Carly Noyes (7 ppg, 3 rpg) and 6-1 junior Sage Romberg (7.3, 3.7), unless you add in two key guards coming back from injury.

Ireti Amogo, a 5-10 junior, (9 ppg) was lost to a knee injury the first weekend of conference play. Midway through the season 5-9 sophomore Tia Presley (5.8 ppg), the all-time leading scorer in the Greater Spokane League, suffered a broken foot.

Amogo is back but might not be in shape to start right away, although she will be expected to be a big contributor and leader, and Presley is starting at the point.

While those two were out, Brandi Thomas, a 6-1 junior (5.6, 3.4), became a force from the backcourt. The five players gave the Cougs 90 starts last season despite the injuries.

Huskies playing small ball

The secret to success for the 2011-12 University of Washington women’s basketball team was really no secret.

Getting the ball to the biggest player on the floor, 6-foot-4 wide-body Regina Rogers, was the first, second and third option in UW’s attack, and the Huskies had plenty of size surrounding her up front.

Oh, how long ago those days seem now.

While head coach Kevin McGuff enters his second season with the return of featured scorer Kristi Kingma on the wing, he also has a vertically-challenged team that might have to get creative to make up for the loss of Rogers and three other veterans up front.

“We’re obviously smaller than last year,” McGuff said, “which just means we’ll play a little bit differently.”

One frontcourt option was supposed to be incoming freshman Katie Collier, a 6-3 McDonald’s All-American who was projected as a likely starter before a summer knee injury ended her season before it began. That leaves UW with just three available players taller than 6-feet.

Talia Walton, a 6-2 redshirt freshman from Tacoma, played in one game last season but was granted a medical redshirt because knee problems sidelined her for almost the entire year. UW’s tallest player, 6-3 Mathilde Gilling, was a late addition to the 2012 recruiting class after coaches discovered her on a European tour last summer; she has yet to play a college game. Six-foot-1 freshman Heather Corral, who played point guard in high school, is also new to college basketball.

“I knew we were going to be smaller,” McGuff said. “Then Katie gets hurt, and now we’re a lot smaller. It just means we’re going to have to change the style of play a little bit, so that’s what we’re doing.”

That change will involve a lot more running. The Huskies hope to outrun the competition and wear out bigger teams in the process.

Led by Kingma, sophomore point guard Jazmine Davis and combo guard Mercedes Wetmore, UW has plenty of scoring options below the 6-foot benchmark.

Kingma should spend even more time on the wing this season, while 6-footers Aminah Williams and Jeneva Anderson (Lewis and Clark) might have to improve their rebounding to find minutes on a team short on height but deep in perimeter options.

Everett Herald staff writer Scott M. Johnson contributed to this report.

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