With visions of postseason dancing in their heads, two area Division I women’s basketball teams hope to wrap up conference titles while the other two continue to fight to upgrade their tournament seedings.
The No. 22 Gonzaga Bulldogs have already won a share of their 10th-straight West Coast Conference championship and the players could cut down the nets as early as Thursday night.
Down on the Palouse, Idaho (19-8, 12-1) is only one win away from at least a share of the Western Athletic Conference title.
And, both Washington State (15-13, 9-7) and Eastern Washington (14-11, 10-6) continue to try to win to improve their positions in conference tournaments, which offer the chance of a run that could guarantee postseason play.
Gonzaga (24-4, 14-2) finishes with two at home, starting with the Thursday rematch with Saint Mary’s (20-7, 10-6), which is coming off a home loss Saturday to Santa Clara. The Gaels handed the Bulldogs their first conference loss of the season, a 79-78 overtime setback on Dec. 28 in Moraga, Calif.
“I hate losing,” senior guard Haiden Palmer said. “I always want to get back at them.”
In that game, Gaels’ forward Danielle Mauldin grabbed 23 rebounds and scored 24 points, and guard Jackie Nared scored 27 points.
But Graves said his team prepared this week just like it has for every game.
“I want us to play like champions,” Graves said. ”We don’t want to back-door into this thing. We want to win it. I think our kids are going to be excited.”
Gonzaga, which has struggled to score points for three straight games, finishes the regular season with a home game Saturday against a dangerous Pacific team. The Tigers have two conference wins over Saint Mary’s and beat BYU in Provo, Utah.
The 2 p.m. Saturday game against Pacific (16-10, 11-5) will also be senior day for Palmer, senior guard Jazmine Redmon – who played at Mead High School – and Stephanie Golden.
Those three players were part of teams that went 109-21 entering the game Thursday, Graves said.
“That’s very impressive,” he said. “They are a special group, very likeable and very personable.”
Graves has called this team the best defensive squad he’s ever coached. He noted that a dozen players scored points in the 72-61 win last Saturday against Portland and only one, Palmer, scored in double figures.
“That is so us. Everybody contributed,” he said. ”It’s the oddest season I have ever experienced as a coach. But as long as somebody is (scoring), that’s all that matters.”
Palmer said the difference in blowout wins and close games simply comes down to shooting.
“Everyone goes into a funk,” she said. “But we always play up for the big games. We are trying to get that momentum again.”
With her family in town from California, Palmer said she hopes she can hang a banner in front of them.
“We’ve won 10 in a row. It’s been going on a long time before I got here,” she said. ”And I hope for a long time after.”
Plant the seeds
Eastern Washington has won six of its last seven games, including a thrilling 61-60 victory over Portland State on Monday as Aubrey Ashenfelter blocked a 3-point attempt, chased down the ball, and scored a layup with 5 seconds remaining.
The Eagles – who are in fourth place in the Big Sky – have two at home, including a 6 p.m. Thursday game against Northern Colorado, and two games on the road before the Big Sky Conference tournament starts on March 13.
Farther south, the Cougars split games last week with the Oregon schools and they currently sit in a three-team logjam at 9-7 with Washington and USC for fifth place in the Pac-12.
But coach June Daugherty, and crew, have the worst matchup of any area teams to finish the season: at No. 18 California on Thursday and at No. 5 Stanford on Saturday.
Daugherty noted that the Cougars played Stanford within eight points in the 77-69 setback on Feb. 7.
“We forced them into a lot of turnovers. Our defense was pretty good,” she said. “Where we lost the game was the free-throw line. They hit their shots and we didn’t.”
But Stanford won the rebound battle 46-30, and Cal outrebounded WSU 55-27 in an 87-70 win on Feb. 9.
“We’ve been working on it,” Daugherty said of the rebounding. “Our post players are excited about the challenge. The biggest thing is we can’t allow them to have second and third chances to score. That’s where both teams tend to thrive.”
When Saint Mary’s visits McCarthey Athletic Center, it will mark the return of two area stars.
Carli Rosenthal, a 6-3 junior forward from Coeur d’Alene, averages 3.8 points and 4.3 rebounds in the 15 games she has played this year.
Hayley Hendricksen, a 6-foot junior forward from Lewis and Clark High School, is averaging 3.5 points and 2.8 rebounds in 26 games.
• Kelsey Moos, who played at Reardan High School, has started every game but one for Arizona State. Moos, a 6-foot freshman from Edwall, is averaging 7.2 points and 6.4 rebounds, which is second highest for the Sun Devils.
• Korina Baker, a 5-7 senior guard from Valleyford, has started every game for Southern Methodist University. Baker, who first played at North Idaho College, is averaging 5.7 points and 3.4 assists for the Mustangs.