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Gonzaga women face tough challenge inside against Sooners in NCAA Tournament

UPDATED: Fri., March 17, 2017, 9:05 p.m.

Oklahoma's Nancy Mulkey, a 6-9 freshman, towers over teammates as they gather mid-court at practice on Friday. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press/Elaine Thompson)
Oklahoma's Nancy Mulkey, a 6-9 freshman, towers over teammates as they gather mid-court at practice on Friday. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press/Elaine Thompson)

SEATTLE – Nancy Mulkey just had another growth spurt.

This one was mental – good thing, because Oklahoma’s starting center already stands 6-foot-9.

Only a freshman, Mulkey is on target to develop into a dominating center but not without some growing pains.

That’s basketball in the Big 12, where according to OU coach Sherri Coale, “People ball screen and run to the block and bury you and just stomp on your face.”

That’s precisely what the Sooners hope to do against Gonzaga in Saturday’s first-round NCAA Tournament game at Alaska Airlines Arena.

Mulkey is still learning, taking it one step at a time in her size 15 shoes.

“The problem was with the pace and the physicality,” said Mulkey, who has started 18 games this year but averages just 11 minutes, 4.0 points and 2.6 rebounds.

“Nancy had a great preconference season, but she would be the first to admit that when we went into conference play, she had to deal with a higher level of physicality,” Coale said.

“She’s still recovering from that.”

Mulkey is the post player of the future at OU, but most of this year’s heavy lifting is done by paint-filling, 6-4 junior Vionise Pierre-Louis.

Both have profited from the time-sharing.

“I feel like she’s also teaching me a few things,” Pierre-Louis said. “We play very different styles. She’s learning on her own, and she can turn up, face the basket and shoot.

“I like my back to the basket,” added Pierre-Louis, who will be the biggest single obstacle to Gonzaga knocking off the Sooners.

Despite not starting a single conference game, she averaged 25 minutes and led the Sooners in scoring (14.1), rebounding (7.7) and shooting (52.5 percent) in one of the most physically demanding conferences in the country.

OU’s inside presence also helps their half-court defense.

“They allow people to drive, they allow their bigs to work, and they make you make decisions on where you are going to help,” Gonzaga coach Lisa Fortier said.

“With the size that they have, that creates a problem.”