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Tuesday, October 15, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Blanchette: Gonzaga women earned their spot

Ever so slightly overlooked in Gonzaga crashing yet another Sweet 16 in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament this week was the morsel of the Bulldogs holding the nation’s sixth-highest scoring team 22 points shy of its norm.

So the Zags played pretty good defense.

And coach Kelly Graves was still playing it Wednesday.

Perhaps you can imagine the reason.

As was the case a year ago – and as it will be again next year – the Bulldogs bid for and won the right to host the first and second rounds at the McCarthey Athletic Center, though they still had to, you know, earn their way into the tournament itself.

Which they did. Then the Zags knocked off sixth-seeded Rutgers and No. 3 Miami, which traveled a composite 4,700 air miles to play in the yowling hell of a double-digit seed’s home court.

This indignity falls somewhere in the vast acreage between ideal and Crime of the Century – and a couple of days later, Graves had had his fill.

“I kind of take offense, really,” he said, “at the notion we just won because we were playing at home.”

He pointed out, helpfully, that LSU – hosting at its joint in Baton Rouge – lost in the second round to Penn State, one seed line up at No. 4. Same thing happened to No. 7 Vanderbilt against second-seeded Duke.

In fact, out of the seven opening venues where lower-seeded teams were afforded the bonanza of playing on their home courts, only Gonzaga lives to play another day. Oklahoma? Out. DePaul? Out. Iowa State didn’t make it to a second day.

“I keep hearing this played up, like we got a pass,” Graves said, “and I like to think we’re a pretty good basketball team and we’re winning because we’re good.

“Look, we lost to USC and Saint Mary’s on our home floor this year, and neither of those are NCAA tournament teams.”

But, hey, site matters. Otherwise coaches wouldn’t make such a big deal during the regular season about holding serve at home, or hold forth on playing on the road in tough environments.

And the NCAA women’s draw is set up the way it is because the stewards of the game – the coaches themselves – wanted atmosphere, a feeling in the air that something’s at stake. They felt their players deserved that.

Surely they got it here.

“It was a great crowd – and we gave them some reason to cheer,” Graves said. “It was one of those games when every possession mattered. And there were times when sound had a feel in that game – that’s when you know it’s pretty cool in there.

“They help us, no question. But the crowd isn’t making the baskets.”

You can’t have been in the gym on Monday night and even suggest it was bad for women’s basketball. But the flipside is it is bad for the visitors – and there is also the unintended slag of Gonzaga’s achievement being devalued beyond the local adoration. Instead of a double-digit Cinderella being celebrated, it’s as if she’s being accused of rigging the ball by hosting it in the dust and char of the kitchen hearth.

All the better, then, that Gonzaga’s next appearance will be in far away Rhode Island and not, as a year ago, in Spokane – which was truly an excess of advantage.

In the 16, the Zags will face something new and something familiar. Kentucky forces 28 turnovers a game and is uncommonly deep – 11 players average 10 or more minutes a game.

“But we’ve had two dress rehearsals,” Graves said, “with teams not a lot different. They’re better – they shoot it and have more skill. But the physical makeup and the pressure are similar. You know how the men’s tournament goes – you might play North Carolina and have one day to prepare for Butler. At least we’ve seen teams similar to them.”

Teams that Graves is convinced his Zags were superior to – beyond what the scoreboard said.

“This will be the 12th game our senior class has played in the tournament,” he said. “Our kids believe they can win and they have, time and time again in this event. We were better than those teams this last weekend, I believe. I don’t think we’re an 11 seed, and the talking heads seem to agree.”

You think? Two double-digit seeds remain in the bracket – the Zags and Kansas, both No. 11s. Gonzaga’s placement on the Ratings Percentage Index – the selectors’ fallback tool – was 21.

Kansas? Try 52.

Thirty-one spots in the RPI, but no difference on the seed line.

“I don’t get it,” Graves said. “Maybe they ding us because we’re hosting.”

Gee. You don’t think that hosting is more trouble than it’s worth, do you?

Nope. That’s a position that can’t be defended.

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