COLLEGE STATION, TEXAS – After years of fighting to join women’s basketball elite, Gonzaga locked horns Sunday with a hungry James Madison program that beat the team it wants to become.
The 11th-seeded Dukes fended off a second-half GU rally and beat the sixth-seeded Bulldogs 72-63 to hand Gonzaga an early exit from the NCAA tournament.
“I just thought that they earned it tonight,” coach Kelly Graves said of the Dukes. “When we clawed our way back and took the lead, I thought some good things were happening. We … got the shots at the right times. We just didn’t make them.”
Gonzaga shot only 32.9 percent from the field, and 20 percent from the 3-point arc. The off night prevented the Bulldogs from separating from James Madison when they took a 46-44 lead with 9:39 to play.
The Dukes (29-5) outscored Gonzaga 28-17 the rest of the way to end the Bulldogs’ season at 29-5.
“It was exactly what we thought it was going to be,” Dukes coach Kenny Brooks said. “Kelly does a fantastic job with the program. We want to emulate what they’ve done. We’re just happy that we were able to prevail with a win.”
The Zags held the Dukes’ leading scorer, Kirby Burkholder, to 4 of 17 from the field. But she grabbed 18 rebounds and made 17 of 18 free throws to lead all scorers with 28 points.
And the senior guard did it after spending most of the night ill with a stomach ailment.
“Imagine how I feel when I’m down at breakfast … and I get a text from my trainer that says Kirby had been sick all night,” Brooks said. “I promised her I’d give her short breaks. She ended up playing 38 minutes. She was going to will our team to win.”
Gonzaga missed its first three shots of the game but used its size advantage and pounded the ball into the paint to grab an early lead. It didn’t last long.
Toia Giggetts, who finished with 15 points and six rebounds, hit a jumper to put James Madison up 12-11 at 12:38 of the first half. Three times the Dukes extended their lead to eight points before Gonzaga caught up momentarily.
Senior guard Haiden Palmer scored six straight points to tie the game at 31. But Burkholder hit two free throws to end the half with a 33-31 lead.
Burkholder hit three free throws to open the second half, but Gonzaga again rallied behind Palmer and junior forward Sunny Greinacher, who finished with a team-high 17 points and eight rebounds.
Palmer hit a shot, was fouled and converted a three-point play to tie the game at 44. Gonzaga extended the lead to 51-47 on a 3-pointer by Shaniqua Nilles with 7:41 to play.
But Burkholder regained the lead when she hit a layup with 5:23 to play. Palmer then went down with a cramp and Gonzaga lost momentum. The Zags never got closer than six points the rest of the way.
“I’ll tell you, I think James Madison is headed for many more” NCAA wins, Graves said. “They just play the game the right way. They were impressive tonight. Unfortunately, we weren’t at our best, but you have to give them a lot of that credit.”
Keani Albanez finished with 12 points. Center Shelby Cheslek scored six and Kiara Kudron and Lindsay Sherbert both finished with five. The game ended the careers of Palmer, Stephanie Golden and Jazmine Redmon. Redmon went 0 for 5 from the field.
“That’s the toughest part,” Palmer said. “It has to sink in a little bit more, but I’m very proud of my team and what we’ve done. Still, just so grateful to be a part of this and I know they’ll keep it going.”
Graves said the loss shouldn’t diminish from the Bulldogs’ great year, which included ending with a No. 18 ranking and a West Coast Conference championship.
“We’ve had a lot of success in the NCAA tournament. We are a program that belongs here,” he said. “We aren’t going anywhere. We’ve got great young kids coming up and we will still be here to stay.”
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