Here’s one that got kicked around upstairs at McCarthey Athletic Center, after the introduction of an opposing player triggered the loudest ovation of the evening:
Say Adam Morrison had been recruited and signed by, oh, Duke. Say that Coach K deigned to book a game in Spokane to bring him home (think of this as musical theatre, where disbelief must be suspended to make it work). Would his reception have been anywhere near as warm as the one which greeted Angie Bjorklund – now of Tennessee via Spokane – on Tuesday night?
The vote here? Not bloody likely.
No particular reflection on Adam – remember the vicious roasting Kevin Love endured when UCLA visited Oregon last year. It may be somewhat of a reflection on the culture of the women’s basketball fan, who comes across as kinder and gentler than the other version – or at least not certifiably insane.
Gonzaga women’s coach Kelly Graves took a stab at an explanation.
“How can you pass up Tennessee?” he said. “You grow up as a kid and that’s where you want to go, and you have the opportunity to go there and play for arguably the best coach in our business – not just the women’s side, but basketball – and a storied program like that. You want her to go. It’s where she belongs.”
Which, of course, is the crux of the matter.
The only-have-eyes-for-the-Zags men’s fan, as he’s evolved (if you want to call it that), would not accept that a local lad with national game belongs anywhere but at the local school with the national name. Duke? The “O-ver-ra-ted!” chant would have started in warm-ups.
But this was something different, and that’s OK.
It’s best not to compare the basketball programs at Gonzaga on this score, because it’s hardly fair or productive, and mostly not relevant. But the appearance of the defending national champions – eight-time NCAA champions – on the McCarthey hardwood makes it at least a little bit unavoidable.
Not the highest-ranked basketball team to visit the GU campus – DePaul’s men were No. 7 when they rolled into old Kennedy Pavilion 27 years ago – but the eighth-ranked Lady Vols certainly looked enough like royalty in easing away from the Bulldogs 77-58, with the reason this match was made in the first place doing her part with 14 points.
That the Zags took the game to Tennessee for the first 15 minutes and stayed close for another 10 may have been about right for pregame predictions, but nobody in white was searching for solaces.
“This was a missed opportunity,” Gonzaga center Heather Bowman agreed. “We found out in the first half we could play with them and we didn’t battle back when we had the chance.”
Well, chance was being kept alive only in the Petri dish of the Gonzaga locker room. A scan of the Lady Vols roster reveals that coach Pat Summitt can bring five McDonald’s high school All-Americans off the bench.
And the Bulldogs, as the old joke goes, can say, “Super size it.”
No disrespect intended. Gonzaga has won 93 games over the past four years and a West Coast Conference title each time, but the gap between good and great is far more pronounced in the women’s game – as the madness, or lack thereof, reveals every March. Since the men’s tournament went to 64 teams in 1985, double-digit seeds have won 23 percent of their games; for the women, it’s less than 14 percent.
And yet even with two rotation players – including Bjorklund’s older sister, Jami, the other reason this match was made – injured, Graves pronounced himself, “Honestly, very disappointed.” Not necessarily with the outcome, but with how the Zags played.
“I think we have enough to compete,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s a mental block or maybe we overhyped it.”
It was tempting to think maybe the Lady Vols’ youth – one senior sub among a roster of freshmen and sophomores – might allow them to be undone, but apparently that sort of thinking isn’t allowed.
“You realize no matter what, there’s no excuse,” sophomore Vicki Baugh said. “It doesn’t matter how young the team is – Pat made that clear this year. She doesn’t care.”
To prove it, she’s taken the Lady Vols on the road to play some good teams – Chattanooga, Texas, Old Dominion before Gonzaga, Rutgers after New Year’s, Oklahoma – in addition to the slog through the SEC. Of the sellout in Spokane, Summitt said, “It was good for us to play in this environment. In high school, they haven’t seen anything like this.”
“This was a fun atmosphere tonight,” Graves acknowledged. “But I want them disappointed that we didn’t win game. … I’m not upset we lost to Tennessee. I’m disappointed that we could have done more. We’ve got to go in thinking that it’s not an upset.”
In fact, he wants them to think it’s where they belong.
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