Just moments after learning that the Gonzaga women’s basketball team would be playing James Madison in the first round of the NCAA tournament, coach Kelly Graves said he remembered watching the Dukes play on television earlier in the season.
“They are similar to us. They had one marquee player, Burkholder, I believe her name was,” Graves said.
Kirby Burkholder, a 6-foot senior guard led the Dukes (28-5) with 18.3 points and 8.3 rebounds a game.
The No. 18-ranked Bulldogs (29-4), seeded sixth in the Lincoln Region, are led by 5-9 senior guard Haiden Palmer, who leads the team with 15.1 points and 5.5 rebounds a game.
The two teams will play at 2:30 p.m. Sunday in College Station, Texas.
“They actually remind me a lot of us,” Graves said.
“We run similar stuff. We both defend well, we are both good on the boards, we both share the basketball and we have multiple weapons. It’s a matchup of two similar teams in style and makeup.”
No. 11 seed James Madison averages 75.2 points to Gonzaga’s 75.5. Both teams mostly dominated their conference opponents and have similar statistics on defense.
GU held opponents to an average of 56 points. JMU held other teams to 54.8 points.
“They are legit,” Graves said. “I think they are under-seeded. Throw out the seeds. I think the winner is the one who executes better.”
The teams have no common opponents, but James Madison did beat a NCAA tournament team in St. John’s and lost to three other tournament teams in Wright State, Vanderbilt and North Carolina.
Graves credits Gonzaga’s seed this year, the highest in school history, to the strength of the teams in the West Coast Conference.
This year Gonzaga went 4-3 against teams that made the tournament, with wins against Idaho, Tennessee-Martin and two against Brigham Young. The Bulldogs also had losses against then-No. 11 Oklahoma, No. 6 Stanford and BYU.
“In years past, we would have been the 11 or 12 seed … because our résumés are not that much different,” he said.
“I think the conference strength showed up this year.”
Layoff no worry
Graves downplayed the 12-day gap between the Gonzaga’s victory in the WCC tournament championship and Sunday’s upcoming game.
“This is normal. Everybody gets done with their tournaments early on the women’s side,” Graves said. “We are not going to win or lose because of the layoff. Anytime you can get rest this time of year is good.”
And fans won’t see new offensive or defensive sets when the Bulldogs take the court.
“We are all who we are at this point in the season,” he said. “Do you need to practice one more pick and roll?”
Nilles not available yet
Sophomore forward Shaniqua Nilles still hasn’t been cleared to play after suffering a concussion and missing the last two games.
“She hasn’t practiced yet. I’m not sure when she will be able to be back,” Graves said. “My guess is that she is doubtful for this weekend.”
Nilles, who starred at West Valley High School, averaged 12.5 minutes and 3.5 points a game. Her highlight was a last-second shot to beat Ohio State prior to conference play.
“She’s the kind of player you need in a game like this,” Graves said. The Dukes “are so fundamentally sound. You need those solid players, and Shaq certainly fills that bill.”
This year marks the sixth straight time Gonzaga has earned a bid to the NCAA tournament.
Athletic director Mike Roth said that run, along with the 16 straight trips for the men, has helped staff know what to expect when it comes to getting a team and equipment to a place like College Station, Texas.
“Our staff is a well-oiled machine with these things,” Roth said. “The coaching staff doesn’t have to worry about anything but getting ready to play.”
Graves agreed, saying he’s been using the location of the game as motivation for his team.
“We can win on the road. We had good, quality road wins this year,” he said. “There is not a kid on my team – who we will play – who has not been in the NCAA tournament. They are not going to be overwhelmed by the moment. It’s time show what we’ve got.”