It may not be completely normal, but it’s as close as it gets these days.
Six-thousand fans packed into the McCarthey Athletic Center. The defending national champions on the floor. And on the ropes.
The noise reverberating through the NCAA tourney banners in the rafters.
Communication crucial and darn near impossible. Seconds left. Game on the line.
Once more the Gonzaga women had their shot against seventh-ranked Stanford. This time, an upset didn’t happen, not like it did the last time the Cardinal visited Spokane – three years and one pandemic ago.
On this Sunday, Stanford survived 66-62. Survived a battle of two programs among the best the West has to offer. Survived missing 10 of 18 free throws. Survived having to play without its best player, last season’s Final Four MVP Haley Jones, out with an undisclosed injury.
But survival isn’t what this one was about. Not for a program at the level Stanford is – did we mention the Cardinal won last year’s national title? – and the level Gonzaga aspires to be.
“I think Tara and I probably do this for the same reasons,” Gonzaga coach Lisa Fortier said, referring to Stanford’s Hall of Fame coach, Tara VanDerveer, the winningest coach the game has seen.
“See how tough your team is early on against a good team. She knows that we’re always going to be good. I know that they are always going to be good.”
And the 6,000 in attendance, more than a few there to watch Central Valley High alums Lexie and Lacie Hull play, know they are going to get a good game.
For a while, it seemed a given they were also going to see an upset.
With Gonzaga stressing the Cardinal defense with multiple ball screens, the Zags’ bigs, despite giving up a few inches, scored 18 of their team’s 23 first-quarter points – though not all were inside.
That trend continued for another five minutes – mainly due to Melody Kempton, who finished with a game-high 16 points – and Gonzaga led 33-18 when everyone paused so the TV and radio folks could sell some products.
But Stanford has won three national titles in VanDerveer’s tenure because, well, for a lot of reasons. It’s impossible to reach such heights in women’s college basketball without a few attributes. Versatility for one. Talent. Depth. And, of course, height.
That’s what VanDerveer turned to at that point, switching from sixth-year senior Anna Wilson – yes, Russell’s little (5-foot-9) sister – to little-used 6-foot guard Hannah Jump.
VanDerveer decided to eschew quickness for size. That freed up the perimeter, something Gonzaga had taken away. It wasn’t about jamming the ball inside but using the bigger bodies to set screens.
Jump ran off them. She gave the Cardinal offense a jolt with two quick 3-pointers. Ashten Prechtel, a 6-5 junior who started instead of Jones, added two more. By halftime the GU lead was down to three and the grind was on.
A March-level grind.
The Cardinal (3-1) are certainly going to be in the NCAA Tournament. It’s also the Zags’ seeming birthright these days as well.
But to be successful, they will have to do one thing better.
“We’ve got to shoot the ball a little bit better throughout the game if we want to win against good teams,” said Fortier, mentioning the 37% they shot against the Hull sisters and the rest of the long, quick Stanford defenders.
“I know we ran a lot of ball screens and there (were) a lot of long arms up,” Fortier added. “Kayleigh (Truong) tried to shoot a couple of them over Prechtel or she got there but didn’t want to get blocked, and then reversed so she’s kind of fading away.”
Truong, who had six assists, missed all but one of the nine shots she took. Sister Kaylynne also missed all but one of her six. Abby O’Connor missed all six of her attempts.
And yet, the Zags (3-1) trailed by just two after Wilson missed one of two free throws with 12 seconds left, part of a rough night at the line for Stanford.
But good teams get good shots even against good defense and Gonzaga did.
Kaylynne Truong got an open look for 3 off a screen. She just missed.
Close? Sure. But that’s no longer good enough. Winning is what’s considered normal these days in the Kennel – even when the Zags don’t.
“We have moved past a moral victory (being) fine,” Fortier said emphatically.
“We are too good now. We can compete with the best teams in the country. We are among the best teams in the country.”
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