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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Blanchette: Bekkering steps up when Zags need new star

Say, that wasn’t entirely the Gonzaga group hug everyone began anticipating.

For a few minutes there, throats couldn’t have been tighter if a drill sergeant with a toothbrush and latrines in need of a scrub had asked for volunteers. A 20-point lead had melted like hearts at a puppy sale. But then a drive, a steal, a foul drawn and some free throws made, and order was restored.

Well, not exactly order. Order would have required pretty much the exclusive involvement of Courtney Vandersloot, America’s sweetheart.

Instead … Janelle Bekkering?

Yes. Janelle Bekkering.

Wow, betcha ESPN had to cut to yet another shot of John Stockton in the crowd while the go-fers frantically flipped through game notes and bio sheets to catch up.

Say this about the Bulldogs’ 76-69 victory over Louisville on Saturday night in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament: Routine went on vacation. But with the result putting Gonzaga in the women’s Elite Eight for the first time, it was as good a time as any.

Not only is this new ground for the Zags, but almost for the tournament itself. Only three other times in the past 10 years has a school not from one of the Big Football conferences reached the regional finals – Xavier (2010), Utah (2006) and Old Dominion (2002). Unless Green Bay sneaks through today, it’ll stay that way.

“I’m sure tomorrow I’ll be thinking about the (next) game,” said Bekkering, “and I’ll realize, ‘Holy crap – we’re in the Elite Eight.’ ”

A holy crap moment if ever there was one.

There were more than a few Saturday. Louisville coach Jeff Walz had his when leading scorer Monique Reid pulled a groin muscle.

In warm-ups. Stretching.

“I tell everybody that warm-ups are great,” Walz said, “but I’ve yet to see – if y’all have dogs – I’ve yet to see a dog stretch before it chases a damn car. I mean, that dog just takes off sprinting and he seems to be OK.”

The upshot of Reid’s absence was predictable enough. The Cardinals looked dazed and confused and were in the process of getting run out of the Spokane Arena, much to the delight of the 10,717 in attendance – not quite a sellout, but definitely a yellout.

Then the Zags melted down, going nearly 8 minutes without a field goal and seeing their Mighty Mouse point guard – who was otherwise her typical sensational – turn the ball over three straight times.

It was at that point that Bekkering, the other senior starter, more or less imposed her will. She drove from the wing for tough layup that finally stopped the bleeding, and a couple of minutes later when teammate Kelly Bowen made it 67-62 with two free throws, came up with the play of the game. The Zags jumped Louisville with a full-court press and Bekkering picked the inbounds pass away from Shoni Schimmel, drawing a foul and making two free throws of her own. She would bury four more in the final minute as GU survived the storm.

“We thought we might catch them off-guard with some pressure,” said Zags assistant coach Lisa Mispley Fortier, who hollered in the call from the bench. “We didn’t want to play not to lose – we’d kind of been doing that a little bit. We thought we had to attack.”

Bekkering was pretty much in that mode from the beginning, even though she managed to air ball Gonzaga’s first two shots – which earned her some keep-shooting encouragement from her teammates during the game and considerable harassment in the locker room afterward.

What got her back on track was hounding the mercurial Schimmel into a 1-of-13 first half. Coach Kelly Graves had insisted beforehand that it would be a group effort, but for all but a few minutes it was Bekkering’s assignment alone.

“He really wasn’t sandbagging,” Mispley Fortier said. “It’s just that Janelle was doing such a good job that there really wasn’t a reason to switch up.”

It got to the point that the Cardinals could really only shake Schimmel free from 3 by making Bekkering pry through double screens by their biggest and beefiest.

Through it all – the air balls, the maniacal ‘D,’ the clutch plays at the end – Bekkering’s motivation was, well, fear.

“Really, I just couldn’t stand the thought of us losing and this being our last game,” she said. “I was nervous. This was such a bigger stage and I don’t want to say there was pressure, but our goal all along was to make the Elite Eight.”

But pressure it was, with expectation in the stands out to five figures and decibels to triple digits.

“We’re obviously the underdogs,” Bekkering said, “but this was still something we expected.”

So, in that sense, order was restored. To the point of pandemonium.

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