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GU women face challenge in WCC’s first half

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Gonzaga women’s basketball coach Kelly Graves stopped practice Thursday and had all his players gather around him. After a few days off to recharge after a 10-2 “preseason,” No. 24 Gonzaga travels to start West Coast Conference play at 1 p.m. Saturday against 10-1 Saint Mary’s. “We are just kind of going through the motions,” Graves told the team. “This is for real. Let’s go.” Graves downplayed the moment after practice, calling it part of the process to get “the rust off” after four days’ vacation following the 70-62 road win last Saturday at Washington State. “Saint Mary’s beat us down there last year,” Graves said. “We just needed to refocus there. I needed to let them know what we are playing for.” He noted that Saint Mary’s is the league’s best-scoring team with four players averaging 13.8 points or more a game. “Saint Mary’s has the best team I’ve seen them have for a long time,” Graves said. “If they are going to do it, this will be the team that does it for them.” Graves said he hopes Gonzaga’s road schedule, which includes tough losses to then-No 11 Oklahoma and No. 4 Stanford, helps prepare his team for the early part of the conference schedule. Saturday begins a stretch of three conference road games before Gonzaga comes home to play BYU on Jan. 9 and San Diego on Jan. 11. The Zags then have four consecutive road games to finish off the first half of conference play. “I can’t believe in an even-numbered league (10) that you could end up playing seven of nine on the road to start,” Graves said. “I mean, really?” Graves said his team would be in the driver’s seat if it can make it through that early road schedule. “If we come out near the top, I’ll be feeling really good,” he said. “The WCC has four teams in the top 40 in RPI. With all that talent, it’s going to be difficult” to run the table. Haiden Palmer, who leads the team with 14.8 points a game, said she’s excited to make her last run at winning the regular-season conference title, something her team has done for nine straight years. “The preseason is over,” Palmer said. “Now all the games count.” She remembered that Saint Mary’s beat Gonzaga last year in Moraga. It turned out to be the Bulldogs’ only conference loss last year. “We know we have to play well,” she said. “We need to stay focused and come to play every game.” Keani Albanez, a 5-foot-10 junior guard who is fourth on the team with 8.7 points a game, said the four days off helped recharge tired legs. “Saint Mary’s is a great rival. You’ve got to love it,” she said. “We need to get those (early games) down and take care of business at our house.” “I think we are well prepared,” Graves said. “We are going to get everybody’s best. That’s what makes us strong.”
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