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Women’s basketball: Inland Northwest teams off to successful starts

After pulling even with 2 minutes left in the game, Eastern Washington University's Wendy Schuller calls the Eagles team together to prepare them for the frantic finishing minutes against Gonzaga University. The Zags won 61-60 on a buzzer beater.  (Jesse Tinsley)
After pulling even with 2 minutes left in the game, Eastern Washington University's Wendy Schuller calls the Eagles team together to prepare them for the frantic finishing minutes against Gonzaga University. The Zags won 61-60 on a buzzer beater. (Jesse Tinsley)
The Eastern Washington women’s basketball team went into the Sunshine State this week as apparent alligator bait for Florida, which had a four-year run of claiming its own Gator Holiday Classic. But the Eagles ended up securing their first victory over a Southeast Conference opponent, something a Big Sky school hadn’t done since Montana beat Mississippi in 2007. “Everybody stepped up and took care of the things we needed,” coach Wendy Schuller said of 67-56 win. “It was a fun week.” With the win, Eastern has its best start in a decade at 7-4. And, all other area schools, including Idaho (6-5), Gonzaga (7-4) and Washington State (9-2), all completed their preseason  schedules with winning records. While Idaho’s record doesn’t appear that good on paper, consider that last year the Vandals finished their preseason schedule at 7-7 before ripping off 10-straight victories and finishing with 18 wins in their final 19 games to win the Western Athletic Conference and earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. And the Cougars, which only had losses to Michigan and then-No. 16 Nebraska, have raced to their best start in 19 years. They have wins over then-No. 22 Dayton, then-No. 10 Maryland and a thrilling one-point victory over Gonzaga. “We are proud of (our) kids, playing a tough schedule and beating some good teams,” coach June Daugherty said in a release. “We have had better focus this year and we have continued to improve each time out because of that.” But the road gets no easier for the Cougs as they now start their Pac-12 schedule that currently has nine other teams with winning records.
Inland Northwest hoops
Gonzaga coach Lisa Fortier said she’s not surprised by the success of the local Division I schools based on the talent coming out of high schools in the region. “The good news for recruiting is that there is lots of good talent in this area,” she said. “It’s a lot easier to recruit local kids than to have to travel all over the place … like Germany and Australia.” Along that vein, the local college programs tend to compete with each other to secure the top local talent. “Every school wants to get the best local kids,” Fortier said. “That’s how you maintain credibility. If you get one crop of local kids, the next crop may want to stay home as well.” Schuller agreed. She noted that Florida only has four players on its roster from … Florida. “You’d think they would hardly have to leave to recruit and we are the school that has our local kids playing for us,” Schuller said. “We are really fortunate in our region. Eastern Washington girls’ basketball is just so good. The coaches here just do a phenomenal job.”
Zags’ Big Weekend
While most teams have already broken up for the holidays, Gonzaga will open its conference schedule this weekend when it hosts BYU and San Diego. The Bulldogs have struggled at times with new guards Georgia Stirton and Emma Stach. But both played well Saturday in the 70-51 win over Southern Utah. For instance, Stach, a freshman from Buchholz, Germany, took the inbounds pass with seven seconds left and drove the entire length of the floor and hit a layup at the buzzer to give Gonzaga a 32-22 halftime lead. “At practice, we have seen the progress we have made,” Fortier said. “But we are not always showing it in games.” The Bulldogs will get an instant measuring stick when they welcome (8-3) BYU on Saturday and (9-1) San Diego on Monday to the McCarthey Athletic Center. “It’s going to come down to us playing team defense,” Fortier said. The Cougars “really know how to fill up the scoreboard. I still think we will have a size advantage when we have our two bigs in.” Using redshirt freshman Emma Wolfram and junior Shelby Cheslek, who are both 6-foot-5, along with 6-4 Sunny Greinacher “is an area we will always try to lean on as the year goes on.” The Zags are trying to continue a run in which they have won or tied for the past 10 West Coast Conference championships. “Everyone in conference is tough, but having these two right off the bat is going to be a challenge,” Fortier said. “You can only go one game at a time, but this is a big weekend for us.”
Montana’s Valley
Speaking of local talent, Montana sophomore forward Kayleigh Valley (University) was named Big Sky Conference player of the week after averaging 18.7 points in three wins last week. For the year, Valley is leading the Lady Grizzlies (7-4) with 12.5 points a game. The 5-11 sophomore forward is also averaging 4.5 rebounds a game. “I guess I’m just getting more used to the speed and style of play at the college level,” said Valley, who averaged 4.4 points on 38.6 percent shooting last year as a true freshman while playing in all 34 games. She also scored 15 points when UM beat Washington State last year in the WNIT.
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