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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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They got game, too

GU women also in a class of their own

Heather Bowman and the GU women have made the extra effort all season. (Jesse Tinsley)
Heather Bowman and the GU women have made the extra effort all season. (Jesse Tinsley)

Prominent among the explanations for the obsession that is Gonzaga basketball is location. The Zags are, it’s pointed out, the only game in town, so it’s no wonder they’re loved half to death. The big-city conceit inherent in this rationale is that the only entertainment alternative in Spokane is stopping by the nearest Les Schwab’s to watch them sipe the snow tires.

Besides, there’s this other game in town.

OK, so they play in the same joint. It is a slightly different phenomenon when the Bulldog women hang out the “Game Today” sign, as was the case Saturday when they sent out the senior class with an 87-45 pasting of Pepperdine at the McCarthey Athletic Center. But it’s a phenomenon nonetheless.

The Zags thus close out their home schedule 15-0. The closest game was the first one, a 12-pointer over USC. The last one ran the average margin of victory over the seven dwarfs of the West Coast Conference to 36.1 points. This suggests there actually is more drama in tire siping, and yet a yen for the unknown was not a factor in luring 4,829 out of the sunshine.

Apparently, butt-kicking is comfort food.

This one followed a familiar script: a few defensive stops to ignite a game-changing run of 21 straight points, the never-routine playmaking of Courtney Vandersloot and the reliability of the Zags’ many finishers, among them Vivian Frieson, who passed the 1,000-point career plateau late in the game after coach Kelly Graves gathered his players at a timeout and demanded, “We’re getting it for her.”

Naturally, she got it on a degree-of-difficulty drive that the coach acknowledged “frustrates the heck out of me most of the time.” Serves him right.

If these sort of details are the inevitable crumbs from a 42-point banquet, the customers have yet to complain. Only two larger crowds have gathered for a women’s game at McCarthey – the sellout last year for Tennessee and the uniting of the hometown Bjorklund sisters, and the 2005 finale against Portland. As it happens, 4,829 is now closer to the norm than the extreme.

Over the past four seasons, the Zags have managed to boost their attendance a mere 100 percent. The 2,935 average is only a few hundred short of what the rest of the WCC teams combined draw – and 1,976 of those are holders of the thoroughly reasonable $75 season tickets.

Everybody has their theories. Graves cited the resources Gonzaga has invested in marketing, a community that feels strongly about high school and college sports and that good local players dot the roster. Athletic director Mike Roth pointed down the bench and noted that “people like the big guy (Graves) in the pink shirt.” Pepperdine coach Julie Rousseau concluded, “Success gets people’s attention.”

Every patron leaves entertained – even near-misses that roll off the rim are punctuated with emotive groans – and every player leaves grateful.

“When we go other places, I’m so thankful we have the support we do,” said junior Janelle Bekkering. “It would be so much different playing in one of those empty gyms.”

What is remarkable is that it by no means the same crowd that packs it on alternate weeks.

“The demographics are completely different,” Roth said. “That’s in gender – there are many more women than you’ll find at a men’s game – and in age. It’s higher on one end and lower on the other end, where the men are toward the middle. That’s pretty universal in well-attended women’s events around the country.

“And I truly believe the men’s team has helped us here. Most of these people don’t get to go to a men’s game – 90 percent of them. So they said, ‘Let’s go to a women’s game.’ ”

And then the women kept them coming. A national ranking, 99 wins in four years and a magician like Vandersloot will do that.

There is one curiosity: aside from the band, student participation is negligible. There is no Kennel Club, but more of a Kennel Klatch. What else they’ve found to do is a mystery.

After all, there’s supposed to be only one game in town.

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