If the season ended today, three of the four area Division I college women’s basketball teams would either win or tie for their conference championships.
And the fourth, Eastern Washington University, was picked preseason to win its conference. The 6-8 Eagles find themselves at a crossroads at 2-3 in the Big Sky after losing both games last week on the road at Montana and Montana State.
Perhaps the biggest surprise has come from Washington State, which has ripped off four wins to open its conference for the first time since 1977-78 when the Cougars started 5-0 in the Northwest Women’s Basketball League. The Cougars currently are tied at the top of the league standings with No. 4 Stanford and No. 15 California.
“It’s exciting to look down and see us in first place in the Pac-12 Conference,” coach June Daugherty said. “I’m proud of our team. I think we are playing some pretty balanced basketball, both offensively and defensively.”
The Cougars sit at 10-6 on the year and host No. 21 Colorado (11-4, 1-3) on Friday.
“It’s the biggest game of the year,” Daugherty said. “They are coming in ranked. They are a team that was in the NCAA tournament last year. From everything we have seen on film, they are a better team. I’m excited. Hopefully the weather stays nice so we can get a lot of our Spokane fans down here.”
Just down the road in Moscow, the (11-7, 4-0) Vandals lead the Western Athletic Conference, which should be re-named Where-ever Athletic Conference. It includes teams that sound more like destinations than schools: Utah Valley, Chicago State and, of course, Grand Canyon.
Idaho plays on the road Thursday at Utah Valley and Saturday at Cal State Bakersfield.
Even with all the success of the area schools, all three lost to Gonzaga (14-3, 4-1), which continues to bask in the glow of two blowout victories last week against West Coast Conference rivals BYU and then-No. 24 San Diego.
“I thought we played terrific basketball,” Graves said. “It’s a testament to the talent we have.”
Graves lauded the depth of his team, which doesn’t have to rely on leading scorer Haiden Palmer for the team to succeed. Palmer missed most of the first half against BYU because of foul trouble.
“Not offensively, but I think this is the best team we’ve had defensively,” he said. “On the perimeter we have Palmer, (Danielle) Walter and (Keani) Albanez. If we can pound it inside, we’ll be tough to stop.”
The outspoken coach turned 51 on Tuesday. Asked how he was going to spend the milestone, Graves joked that he was flying to visit a 16-year-old girl.
“I’m going to be on a private plane to British Columbia going to see a recruit,” whom he said he couldn’t name.
Perhaps knowing the tradition of the “Spank Machine,” Graves lightened up the practice for the Bulldogs, who travel to play at San Franciso on Friday and Sunday at Santa Clara.
What is the spank machine? The players all line up and spank the birthday person on the behind as they run through, Palmer said. “He’s definitely a little more happy than usual,” she said Tuesday. “But we probably shouldn’t do that with coach.”
Last week, Graves trucked out a pair of radioactive salmon-colored shorts to practice. Asked what she should give him as a gift, Palmer replied: “Shoes, to match his colorful shorts.”
Asked her thoughts of upcoming opponents San Franciso and Santa Clara, Zags’ junior forward Sunny Greinacher said she hadn’t yet seen them on film.
“On Tuesday, it’s just about us competing against each other,” Greinacher said. “Then we spend quite some time studying film.”
For a Friday game, the full team typically gets together with all the assistant coaches Wednesday for an overall scouting report on the upcoming team.
Then on Thursday, the coach individually quizzes the players on their individual opponents to make sure they understand the game plan.
For a Sunday game, the team gets the full scouting report on Saturday with individual film sessions occurring on the day of the game, Greinacher said.
“When you add school work to that, it definitely requires time management skills,” she said.