COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Gonzaga women’s basketball coach Kelly Graves and his players were all smiles Saturday as they prepared for yet another chance at an immortal run, or quick exit, from the NCAA tournament.
The No. 6-seeded Bulldogs face a No. 11 seed James Madison team at 2:30 p.m. today that Graves repea- tedly has said looks very much like themselves: tall, athletic and defensive-oriented.
“James Madison is the kind of team that is going to push us to our absolute limit,” Graves said. “For most teams, you can play off this player or that player and game plan accordingly. You can’t against James Madison. They will have five players on the floor that can beat you in one way or another.”
Dukes head coach Kenny Brooks mirrored his comments about No. 18-ranked Gonzaga, saying it’s a program he wants to emulate.
“I feel like that commercial with Chris Paul where he’s separated with his twin at birth,” Brooks said. “Watching them on film, I was amazed at our similarities. I think it’s going to be a wide-open game.”
Gonzaga (29-4), which won the West Coast Conference regular season and postseason tournament, has a full complement of players, except possibly sophomore forward Shaniqua Nilles, from West Valley.
She practiced Saturday but remains a game-time decision after suffering a concussion during the West Coast Conference tournament.
“We won’t prepare any differently (for James Madison) than we did for the 33 games we have already played,” Graves said. “They understand this is the NCAA tournament. I think the fact that they have been here, the moment is not going to be too big.”
Senior guards Haiden Palmer and Jazmine Redmon both said they hope their first trip to Texas will make pleasant memories.
“We’re happy to be in the tournament like every other team,” said Palmer, who leads the team in scoring and rebounding. “We’ve been blessed to play in front of great fans there in Spokane. We’ve heard a lot of great things about the Texas fans and all the passion they have for women’s basketball. Either way, we have to play 40 minutes very well against a great opponent.”
Brooks said he “zoned out” when he saw that his team, which is returning to the tournament for the first time since 2011, was placed as an 11 seed against Gonzaga.
“I think this is one of the more intriguing matchups of the first round,” Brooks said. “To be able to play against a team that has so much history on both the men’s and women’s side is a very big deal. We are excited to play against a team like that.”
Redmon and senior center Stephanie Golden are the only two players who played on the 2011 Gonzaga team that advanced to the Elite Eight. Palmer redshirted that year after she transferred from Oregon State.
For a program that has made six straight NCAA tournaments, both players said returning to the Elite Eight is one of the team’s goals.
“We have to take it one step at a time,” Redmon said. “First, we’ve got to be prepared for this game.”
The winner advances to play either host team, and No. 3 seed, Texas A&M or No. 14 seed North Dakota on Tuesday. To do that, Palmer said the Bulldogs must first beat a team that looks just like them.
“They have great athletes. They do a lot of things we do. It’s a great challenge for us,” she said. “We know we have to come to play.”