A familiar face is coming to the Palouse this week leading a women’s basketball program that looks anything like a contender.
Last year at this time, Kelly Graves’ Gonzaga team was on a 10-game winning streak en route to its 10th consecutive West Coast Conference title and sixth straight trip to the NCAA tournament.
But this year, Graves brings his Oregon Ducks to Pullman hoping to get back to .500 against a Cougars team that has postseason aspirations of its own.
“The reality is, we are not as talented as most of the teams in our conference,” Graves said. “I’d be lying to say that it hasn’t been a struggle and depressing at times. But we are trying to build a culture, not just win games in the short term.”
Graves took over an Oregon program last April with a roster full of players recruited to play for former NBA and WNBA coach Paul Westhead’s run-and-gun offense. One of those players is senior Katelyn Loper, who starred at Post Falls and transferred to Oregon from Hofstra.
“Katelyn was recruited to come in as a 3-point shooter. They wanted her to shoot in three to seven seconds. They didn’t play any defense,” Graves said. “Katelyn is one of the success stories. She is really starting to get what we want to do.”
Graves had the 5-foot-11 Loper starting early in the year as a power forward “and playing small-ball. But we weren’t getting as much offensively as we were giving up defensively,” he said.
Oregon switched to a traditional zone defense and Loper has become a backup.
“She’s a real spark off the bench,” Graves said of Loper. “She’s someone who can come in and score.”
Loper is averaging 10.3 points, which is fourth-best on the team. She also has averaged 3.5 rebounds.
Taking on Tia and Lia
Despite a depleted roster, the Ducks are riding a two-game winning streak after beating USC on Monday and UCLA on Saturday. But Graves said Oregon will have its hands full Friday against Washington State’s All-Pac 12 guards Lia Galdeira and Tia Presley (Gonzaga Prep).
“They are so good offensively,” Graves said. “Those two drive that Ferrari. They are difficult to stop.
“For us, we don’t have the athleticism to play with them for 40 minutes. We’ve got to scheme and do some other things to try and slow them down.”
Earlier this year, the Cougars won 79-76 at Eugene.
“Those two guards killed us here, and even still, we had our chances,” Graves said. “We would like to have that game back. All we can do is try to improve on it and do better this time.”
Graves said he can’t help but notice how the Bulldogs, under his former assistant Lisa Fortier, have kept the program in a position for yet another conference championship and postseason appearance.
“I’ve seen them play a couple of times,” Graves said. “It makes it even more difficult knowing they are having a lot of success. I’m no dummy. I knew they would be really good again.”
Graves’ family is still residing in Spokane until his middle son graduates from Gonzaga Prep.
“It’s better for me to be all-in here and not have one eye on Spokane,” he said. “I’ve talked to Lisa some. I still feel bad. I’m happy here, but part of me is still a Zag.”
For her part, Fortier said she understands the difficult dynamic.
“He’s trying to get some separation, but we can’t,” she said. “He was a great mentor and a good friend. We won’t let being on different teams affect that.”
Gonzaga senior Lindsay Sherbert, who has returned from a knee injury, said she’s more focused on her conditioning than how many minutes she gets into games.
“I need to get my wind back before I can contribute,” she said. “For me, it’s not focusing on, ‘I want these minutes.’ It’s just good to be on the court.”
Fortier said it’s a luxury to get a player of Sherbert’s skill and experience this late in the conference push.
“We kind of got used to our eight-player rotation,” she said. “But any additional weapon you can get is great, especially someone who can score points.”
Sherbert was averaging about 10 points and five rebounds before she hurt her knee against Iowa. While most players are straining after months of practice and games, everything is fresh again for the 6-foot wing.
“Everyone wants to be that big-time player who gets the ball at the end of the game,” she said. “Whether it’s two minutes left and we need a big shot, or the second sub off the bench, you’ve just got to be ready at all times.”
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