There’s nothing like a 14-point deficit in a home opener to get a team’s attention.
Gonzaga’s women, in that unenviable position, shook off a forgettable first 16 minutes on Friday by counting on their defense and the leadership of guards Taelor Karr and Haiden Palmer.
The Bulldogs (3-0) prevailed 62-53 in their nonconference game with Wisconsin, but there were anxious moments for the 5,758 fans at McCarthey Athletic Center, who came to see if Gonzaga is still a Sweet 16-caliber basketball team.
The fans had to wonder about their Bulldogs when Wisconsin (1-1) pieced together a 13-0 run to take a 31-17 lead with a little more than 4 minutes left in the first half.
But the next 18 points belonged to the Bulldogs as Karr, who ended the first half with a layup off a clear-out, and Palmer, who hadn’t scored during the first 17:43, took on the challenge. Palmer had eight points during the spree, capping the run with a 3-pointer for a 35-31 advantage.
“It’s always tough when your jump shot’s not falling,” said Palmer, a junior from California. “I just had to get to the rim more and let the game come to me.”
“For the longest time, I didn’t know we were down by 14,” said Karr, one of two seniors on the young team. “I didn’t want to panic because I have to be a leader … and keep the young ones in it.”
Although the Badgers righted themselves for a 40-all tie with 13:32 left, Gonzaga steadily pulled away with an extra boost from sophomore guard Keani Albanez, who had scored 17 points in Gonzaga’s first two wins of the season. Albanez, scoreless until late in the first half, hit a 3-pointer and two free throws to boost GU’s lead to double digits with 8:43 left.
Gonzaga entered the game with its focus on Wisconsin senior guard Taylor Wurtz, who averaged 16 points per game last season and began this season with a 16-point effort against Milwaukee.
But another Badgers guard, junior Morgan Paige, had the Bulldogs reeling as she hit three 3-pointers and reached halftime with 15 points.
“She kind of went on a run, then we pulled our heads together and figured it out,” Karr said.
After the early deficit, Bulldogs coach Kelly Graves installed a zone defense and instructed his team to trap as much as it could. Wisconsin shot just 8 of 24 from the floor in the second half and Paige was held to just five more points.
Wurtz scored enough late points to finish with 12, but Gonzaga never surrendered its double-digit lead during the final 71/2 minutes.
“It was very similar to the Riverside game,” Graves said of the Bulldogs’ season-opening win, when GU stumbled around during the first half. “Nothing was working and we hadn’t shown that we were capable of putting anything together.”
Graves had been concerned about limiting Wisconsin’s second shots, but sophomore Sunny Greinacher and redshirt freshman Shelby Cheslek (Pullman High) combined for 20 rebounds to give GU a 38-32 edge.
Palmer finished with a team-high 15 points, one more than Karr, even with her slow start and not scoring for the final 4 minutes.
“But what great players do – and she’s a great player – is find a way,” Graves said.
“Basically, it’s just a game of momentum, especially at home when you have such great fans,” Palmer said.