Women’s basketball fans who thought a day relaxing in the comfortable chairs at McCarthey Athletic Center watching four teams go through their pre-NCAA tournament practice were turned away Friday afternoon.
For those accustomed to the previous NCAA tournaments, first weekends for men, regionals for women, that was a first.
“I’m sure Spokane would be a community that would have loved to come to McCarthey and support local practices,” Gonzaga associate athletic director Heather Gores said. “But … the women’s basketball committee, given the low attendance in past years, and the added expenses of securing the buildings, thought it was in the best interest to close practice.”
Gonzaga is the host for the first two rounds – Friday and Monday – of the women’s tournament, the first time the opening weekend has been played here. Gore, who is on the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Committee, said opening practices to the public means staffing the building like game day. Teams would generally go through an hour of simple drills and joking around before heading off to a serious practice elsewhere.
“It gives the teams the opportunity to have a real practice the day before the game,” she said. “We’d love to support the community, but the opportunity for those teams to actually get some business done in a short period of time instead of leaving the site and going to another gym, this puts the team first.”
And every venue is treated the same.
“Knoxville (Tenn.) and Storrs (Conn.) could pack the facilities, and maybe Spokane, but many communities cannot to that,” she said. “And we are different than the men, they draw a lot of attention. Unfortunately on the women’s side we don’t quite get that same support.”
The men also have eight first weekend sites, the women have 16.
The 11th-seeded Gonzaga women have remained loosey-goosey, coach Kelly Graves’ words, as they prepare for Saturday afternoon’s game against sixth-seeded Iowa.
“That is just how we play, we’ve always played that way,” Graves said. “I think we’re best when we play loose. Obviously, we like to play fast and I don’t think you can play fast and play tight.”
Past is past
Gonzaga is 0-5 against Big Ten teams, including a meeting with Iowa in the 2002 Great Alaska Shootout, when both Graves and Hawkeyes coach Lisa Bluder were in their second season.
“I’ve never really heard that until right now,” Gonzaga star Courtney Vandersloot said when asked if that was a concern. “That doesn’t affect us at this point.”
The Bulldogs don’t believe they are missing the NCAA experience by playing at home.
“It’s a little bit different just because we’re not in a hotel, just being around home we’re comfortable in here,” senior Vandersloot said. “Once you walk in here and see our gym has changed a little bit, it creates the NCAA environment.”
Senior Janelle Bakkering said, “I don’t really miss anything about being on the road. … It’ll be a sold-out crowd and it’s just going to be fun to play in. It will be a good atmosphere.
Graves said, “They went to class this morning. They are doing the same things they would typically do on a Friday. This is about the time we practice every day so nothing has been too unusual. That can be good and bad.
“We will have a lot of people who are Gonzaga fans and with that maybe comes a little more pressure than it would be for an 11-seed being on the road.”
On the road
Of course Iowa wasn’t thrilled to be seeded higher than Gonzaga and then have to play the Bulldogs on their home floor in front of a sell-out crowd of 6,000.
“We understand how tough it’s going to be playing be, playing on anybody’s home court is more difficult than playing on a neutral court,” Bluder said. “I think you can ask 320 Division I coaches and they’ll give you the same answer, so no, we’d rather be playing on a neutral court. But at the same time, Gonzaga has been a great host.”
Kachine Alexander, the Hawkeyes’ all-league guard, said, “It’s kind of like last year when we came to the West Coast (Stanford). It’s always fun because we don’t get to come on this side of the country very often. … It’s really fun to come out this way when you get to see new cities.”
There is an incentive for playing well as the villain in front of 6,000 fans.
“The negatives of their crowd makes that our positive,” sophomore center Carter Johnson said. “We’re really excited to quiet the crowd out there.”
Another team feels at home
At least one other team is hoping to have a homecourt-feel today.
Montana, located 3½ hours east of Spokane, didn’t get as many tickets as it had hoped, Grizzlies coach Robin Selvig said.
“We could have had a couple thousand (come over),” Selvig said. “There just weren’t tickets for it. There will be a lot of people (in Missoula) watching on TV.”
Selvig said about 350 fans will be on hand. He figures Gonzaga fans will likely cheer on the Grizzlies since they’re underdogs.
When the UCLA Bruins say they’re not happy to be here, they’re not talking about the location, Spokane.
They’re talking about greater ambitions – like a deep run in the tournament.
It’s the second straight season the Bruins are in the tourney.
“I look at the road we have traveled and we’ve worked hard to get to this point,” UCLA coach Nikki Caldwell said. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of this team and what they have been able to accomplish in a short period of time. This year, with more maturity on our side with Darxia (Morris) and Doreena (Campbell) playing the way they are and leading our team at the guard play, I think this team is looking at it as we knew our name was going to be called (on Selection Sunday). The focus is how far are we going to go.”
She said it
“We are a long ways from home. We don’t have many fans here. I think the selection committee got Idaho and Iowa mixed up.” – Lisa Bluder, Iowa coach
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