For the second straight year, Melody Kempton is spending Thanksgiving far from home but close to her families.
That’s right, she has two: her own in Post Falls and the Gonzaga women’s basketball players and coaches. And just as they did last year in Vancouver, British Columbia, they’ll celebrate the holiday together.
“It’s awesome to have that kind of support,” Kempton said. “We’ll all be eating together.”
Even better, they’ll do it in Florida. “That will be great, because I like the humidity,” said Kempton, who lately has also brought a lot of heat to the basketball court.
Through four games, the 6-foot-1 sophomore has been the Zags’ biggest contributor off the bench. Seeing an average of 18 1/2 minutes of action, Kempton leads the team in rebounds with eight per game.
She’s also scoring 6.5 points a game. Even better, coach Lisa Fortier said. “Mel never gets tired … she does, of course, but she just keeps going and plays so hard.”
Those qualities will come in handy this weekend at the Gulf Coast Showcase in Estero, Florida, where the 22nd-ranked Zags (3-1) will play three games in as many days, all against quality competition.
GU opens Friday morning against Dayton, which returns all five starters and was the preseason No. 2 pick in the Ohio Valley Conference.
The Flyers are 3-3 with losses against No. 6 South Carolina (75-49 on Nov. 13), Central Michigan (81-80 in overtime on Nov. 21) and Tuesday night against No. 4 Connecticut ( 75-37).
Win or lose, GU will face another solid opponent Saturday against Auburn or Middle Tennessee State. Auburn returns three starters from an NCAA Tournament team that finished 22-10 overall and 9-7 in the SEC. Middle Tennessee State went 23-11 last year and reached the WNIT.
However, Auburn is off to a disappointing 2-2 start, losing to Old Dominion and Alabama Birmingham. Middle Tennessee State is 4-1 but was beaten soundly at home by No. 14 Kentucky 67-52.
The other half of the bracket includes Arizona State, Maine, Purdue and Drake, all of which reached the postseason past year.
“I think they’re all good, which means you can’t have a lapse,” said Fortier, whose team has endured a few recently.
At No. 3 Stanford, the Zags were outscored 17-12 in the third quarter before recovering to take the Cardinal to overtime. Last weekend, a lackluster second quarter by GU kept Eastern Washington in the game.
That can’t happen this week, Fortier said.
“In every one of these games you have an opportunity to win and an opportunity to lose,” Fortier said.
Players don’t always accept that message at face value, especially when the opponent is of lower quality.
“They kind of look at you and say ‘sure,’ but in this tournament there’s no more honest a statement, which I think makes it a great place to be,” Fortier said.
And with three games in three days, it’s an even better place for teams with quality depth.
That’s where Kempton comes in, bringing what Fortier calls an “Energizer Bunny” mentality.
“She has a great motor in practice and in games, and she’s doing things technically well,” Fortier said.
Kempton took her game to a higher level in the loss at Stanford. Her 33 minutes on the floor easily were a career high, and she shot 5 of 9 from the field.
Even better, the Stanford game was a confidence booster for Kempton, who acknowledged that as a freshman she sometimes worried too much about making mistakes.
“I think I just understand that I’m a good player, fitting into my role and playing with more confidence,” Kempton said.
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