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Blanchette: GU women morph into defensive wizards

Among the 5,739 guests at Saturday’s Gonzaga women’s basketball game was Kelly Graves’ first point guard – and the eighth-grade team she coaches at Chelan Middle School.

“He was the most awesome coach back then,” offered Janice Huddleston, who played for Graves at Big Bend Community College. “But can he still shoot?”

Oh, you don’t want any part of him in a game of H-O-R-S-E, coach.

And now his current team seems to be getting the hang of it, too.

It wasn’t too long into the Graves Age – now 14 years – that they evolved into the runnin’, shootin’ and, often as not, makin’ Zags, a style that filled the seats at McCarthey Athletic Center and nudged the program among the nation’s elite.

They’re No. 15 in the most recent vote, though there is the odd practice when Graves is moved to ask for a recount.

Game days of late, not so much.

After the 88-51 blitz of Loyola Marymount, the Zags have won their last five outings by 38 points a pop. Not sure what play-by-play man Steve Myklebust is coming up with to keep the radio audience riveted, but he might want to start brushing up on Broadway show tunes.

Granted, this run has come against teams circling the drain of the West Coast Conference standings – just 28 wins among the four. But those teams get to award scholarships, too, and the Lions did take the Zags to overtime two weeks ago, which probably still festered.

“These guys get a little ornery,” Graves said of his players. “That’s a good quality.”

And not their only one.

“We’re different than any team I’ve ever had,” Graves said. “Over the last five years, we’re the third-leading scoring team in the nation behind UConn and Notre Dame. And that’s what we’ve been known for.

“I checked the stats the other day before the (Pepperdine) game and we were fifth in the nation in five different defensive categories. We’re in a different place, but I like where we’re at.”

Especially now that he’s seeing a few more buckets.

In the five games before this latest run, the Zags shot a collective 38 percent. That they won them all was more than enough consolation, but for an old marksman like Graves, it can be tough hearing all those “thunks” off the rim.

So when the Zags came out Saturday afternoon and nailed nine of their first 12 shots – 3s, post-ups, 15-footers – it seemed like the good old days. Haiden Palmer, who had 32 against the Lions in Los Angeles, riddled them for 27 points this time, on 10-of-15 shooting, and seven assists led to 18 more.

“Those are Courtney Vandersloot numbers,” Graves said.

Well, since he “opened the door,” as Jack McCoy used to say on “Law & Order,” Graves isn’t uncomfortable mentioning the current Zags along with his gold-standard teams, though obviously the real work is still ahead.

“I think you can compare,” he said with a shrug. “This is the deepest team I’ve had – not even close. I think it might be the most athletic. Now, that’s tough to say. Bekkering, Redmon, Rapp, Standish, Bowman – those kids were athletic. But we weren’t athletic deep. We changed when we went to the bench.”

They still do. Only sometimes they get more athletic.

“I said this on TV tonight,” said Stephanie Hawk Freeman, who handles commentary on SWX broadcast. “If you’re the opposing team and you see Gonzaga’s subs come in, you almost have to be like, ‘Ugh.’ There’s no break. There’s no drop in talent on this team right now.”

Which is one reason the Zags have 10 players averaging 10 or more minutes a game, and an 11th just a few ticks less than that – though, of course, some of that’s a function of the blowout factor.

“We have so many good players that everyone deserves to play,” forward Sunny Greinacher said, “and not everyone can and that is frustrating. But it’s great that when somebody’s down or not having their best night, there’s always someone to pick it up.”

Still, Graves can’t quite contain himself when it comes to the Bulldogs’ new edge, and what that might mean in March.

“We’re versatile defensively,” he said. “We have great ball-hawkers to put pressure on the perimeter. We have a lot of versatility on the wings – five or six 6-2 athletes. There are times we switch every screen. And we have some shot blockers inside.

“Jerry Krause (GU’s director of men’s basketball operations) always told me this: Defense is what’s tested come tournament time.”

Because the postseason is no game of H-O-R-S-E.

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