Blanchette: GU women arrived at familiar place, but take different path

Spokesman-Review contributing sports columnist John Blanchette.  (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokesman-Review contributing sports columnist John Blanchette. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

LAS VEGAS – Here’s what we knew about the Gonzaga Bulldogs when the women’s basketball season began: more than half the team’s scoring and rebounding from last year gone, no all-league players returning, 10 freshmen and sophomores on the roster.

Here’s what we know now: 26 wins, 5 losses.

Well, of course, there’s more to know than that. But boiling down a statistical Zagstract to that lean entry is as good a place as any to get a hand grip on an improbable ensemble.

The Bulldogs roared into the championship game of the West Coast Conference women’s tournament with a 62-43 pasting of Brigham Young on Saturday at the Orleans Arena, the third time this season they’ve put the run to the Cougars – who, you’ll recall, killjoyed the party here a year ago.

And speaking of parties, the Zags have had just a single game in the last two months that wasn’t a double-digit social.

If you checked out in December after they’d taken a couple of noogies from the heavies on the schedule – to say nothing of a pratfall against Washington State to close out the calendar – and only checked back in now, you might not recognize them.

Or you might. Because they’re right where the Zags always are.

“Not only would I have taken this,” said coach Kelly Graves, “I would have said you were crazy.”

Because given only the black-and-white math of 26-5, the Bulldogs are comparable to any of the teams Graves has assembled since Gonzaga began making trips to the NCAA tournament in 2007. No, the Zags didn’t make it through the WCC unbeaten (three teams have). No, there is no Naismith Award winner as a magnet for attention. No, there was no 23-game winning streak.

And, yes, there are still NCAA bona fides to be measured.

But there is real achievement to acknowledge, along with what Graves insisted even back during some of the box-stepping last fall.

“I was on record that this was our most talented team,” he said, “and from 1-through-15, I still think it is – our most talented and deepest.”

The “of course…” addendum to Graves’ claim is the inexperience previously cited, and the weight of all those previous 27-7s and 29-5s and Elite Eights prominent in recent history, with the expectation of more.

“And that’s something we struggled with early in the year,” admitted center Shelby Cheslek.

This along with the normal defining of roles and rotations that can be challenge enough.

So Graves weighed his choices, and went with…

“I’ve kind of been a butthole most of the year,” he revealed. “I think I’ve been tougher on this team than most.

“I really thought if we were going to win, we were going to have to do it because of our mental and physical toughness. You might think that with a young team, I’d hold their hands a little bit more, but no.”

Which is not to say he won’t delegate the mezzo-piano parts.

Graves revealed that sometime in December, a few of his younger players came to him and admitted the stakes were feeling a little overwhelming (and maybe the voice a little strident). His solution: bringing in a few former players to talk it through with the kids.

“Sometimes we forget to put our arm around them and tell them, hey, they’re doing a great job,” Graves said. “And the alums can tell them when the coach yells at you, it means he cares – and that maybe you need to do something different.”

Whatever the dynamic, the Zags toggled over to a different rhythm when league play began – and, no, WCC haters, it wasn’t the level of competition. The current RPI ranks the conference as the seventh-best nationally, as high as it’s ever been.

The offense took some baby steps toward efficiency, and the defense – GU’s strength all season – reached another level. Only once since Christmas have the Zags surrendered more than 60 points, and that was in a 101-65 rout of USF.

It didn’t hurt that senior Taelor Karr blossomed into the WCC’s MVP, not just as a scorer (she had a couple of 27-point games bookending the conference round-robin) but as a heart-and-soul type, too. The Zags have had seven different players lead them in scoring and while Graves noted it’s a comfort having options, “Sometimes it’s not so nice not knowing who it’s going to be on a given night.”

And, lo, here they are at 26-5, a record that suggests all sorts of possibilities. Which Graves is happy to entertain.

“I think,” he said, “expectations are a great thing.”

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