Kelly Graves was just plain excited.
The Gonzaga women’s basketball coach had just guided his squad past Tennessee-Martin, 91-54, in the quarterfinal round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament in front of 4,848 fans Sunday at the McCarthy Center.
But that only made him smile.
Haiden Palmer had her second straight 18-point game to lead the Zags, but that, too, only made the coach smile.
“She had a quiet 18 points,” he said. “Friday night, if she doesn’t get 18 points, we don’t win that game. This game, she played great and had a good game, but you hardly noticed her. That’s the kind of a leader she’s become.”
Gonzaga had run over a quality program in UT Martin, a program that had knocked off Georgia State 84-80 in a first-round game Friday in Martin, Tenn.
The Skyhawks were just 20 of 75 from the floor against the Zags.
“This is one of those games that is really going to help our RPI down the road because that’s a very good program,” Graves said. “They played a tough game, jumped on a bus and got to Nashville at about 3 a.m. to catch a flight here. I’m sure there were some very tired legs out there.”
The Bulldogs had 11 players with 12 minutes or more playing time in the game. But that, too, was worthy of just a smile.
“I liked that we had a lot of players with a lot of minutes,” Graves said. “It’s going to be a long season and players like Haiden and Sunny (Greinacher) and Jazmine (Redmon) are going to have to play a lot of minutes. It’s good that we can get them out of a game and save some of the wear and tear on them.
“We always try to substitute with a purpose, but we weren’t really looking for anything specific.”
So what made Graves’ eyes light up?
A semifinal date with the Oklahoma Sooners on Thursday at 5 p.m. in Norman, Okla.
“There are three states in this country that I have never been to and Oklahoma is one of them,” he said. “I’m excited to get back there and see the kind of facilities they have. That’s a great program and I really admire what Sherri Coale has done with it. She’s one of those coaches I admire and want to get to know better.”
The Sooners beat Wichita State on Sunday in their quarterfinal, 89-70.
California transfer Lindsay Sherbert got her first career start at Gonzaga against the Skyhawks – a move Graves called an experiment. Sherbert started ahead of Greinacher, who will likely start against Oklahoma, he said.
“It’s good to go out and play again after a (redshirt) year,” Sherbert said. “Friday was a little more nervous for me. This was a little more nervous, exciting, anxious – all of it. Starting was great, but with this team that really doesn’t matter. This team doesn’t have that kind of ego.
“It’s good to get all of these firsts out of the way and get back to just playing basketball again. One of my friends was all excited – ‘You got your first 3-pointer!’ Yup, got my first 3, and I can put that behind me.”
Keani Albanez had 14 points in her second career start. Greinacher and Stephanie Golden came off the bench to add 13 and 10 points, respectively.
Shelby Cheslek, a 6-foot-5 sophomore from Pullman, showed off the results of a second straight offseason hitting the weight room.
“I’ve been working hard because I want to get as much playing time as I can,” she said. “Keani and I worked out together all summer. I got to the point where I can now put the 45-pound plates on both sides of barbell.”
“I told Shelby that we need her to be a force in the middle and she’s done a great job making herself stronger,” Graves said. “I wish we’d had the foresight to get a before-and-after picture of her.
“She still needs to work on her lateral movement, but she does a much better job holding her position inside.
“And that little rolling hook shot of hers is a thing of beauty.”