LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The pressure-cooker moment is sure to come at some point Sunday night, when the Gonzaga women take on top-seeded Louisville in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Inevitably, the Zags will give up a big bucket, then try to move the ball against full-court pressure and the roar of more than 10,000 hostile fans.
Bring it on, the GU players said Saturday.
“We know they’re going to come out and play like they’re No. 1,” Gonzaga senior Anamaria Virjoghe said.
“But we’re going to come out playing, too, like, doesn’t matter. It can be our last game, so we’re going to put everything on the floor,” Virjoghe said.
Tip-off is at 4 p.m. at the KFC Yum! Center in downtown Louisville. The winner will move on to the Sweet 16 in the Wichita Region.
Obviously, a lot must go right for the ninth-seeded Zags to beat Louisville, an elite program that just earned its third No. 1 seed in the past four years.
Top seeds tend to take care of business at the NCAAs. Since the expansion to 64 teams in 1994, top seeds are 52-2 against No. 9 seeds in the second round.
The Cardinals are also not inclined to look past the Zags.
“We’re approaching this game tomorrow night like it’s the national championship game,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. “Because if you don’t win, you’re done.”
Louisville has an impressive resume, including a 26-4 record and second-place finish in the rugged Atlantic Coast Conference. Those losses came by a combined 14 points.
In the ACC Tournament quarterfinals against Miami, the Cardinals blew a 17-point lead and lost 61-59. They wouldn’t be a No. 1 seed had Baylor not lost in the Big 12 Tournament championship game on Selection Sunday.
By top-seed standards, the Cardinals are limping into the tournament with two losses in their past seven games.
For several reasons, Gonzaga appears to have a shot at the upset.
The Zags (27-6) have won six straight games, including the West Coast Conference Tournament title game against No. 15 BYU and a first-round tournament game Friday over Nebraska.
GU also has a veteran team, with senior starters who are unlikely to get fazed by the crowd.
“That’s an environment that we enjoy playing in front of and we’re accustomed to,” GU coach Lisa Fortier said.
“We played with a lot of crowds in the gyms,” Virjoghe said. “We know how it feels like.”
On the other hand, the Zags didn’t fare well in a hostile setting on Feb. 19 at BYU. GU lost that game 63-39.
GU’s biggest edge on the court is its strength inside. With starters Virjoghe, Melody Kempton and backup Yvonne Ejim, the Zags can hold their own against the Cardinals.
The Zags’ defense is peaking at the right time. GU held high-scoring BYU and Nebraska squads to under 60 points, and is giving up an average of 55.7.
GU continues to dominate on the boards and is plus-10.2 for the season. If the game comes down to the wire, the Zags are one of the best free throw-shooting teams in the nation (77.2%).
The Cardinals counter with deep talent. Ten players average double-digit minutes. The scoring punch comes from Cashmere, Washington, product Hailey Van Lith, Kianna Smith, and Emily Engstler.
To stay tin he game, GU must solve a defense that’s been described as “nasty” by more than one opposing coach.
It usually begins after Louisville scores, with varying pressure. Sometimes it’s a full-court press; other times, it’s a half-court trap. The Cardinals will man-press a team up the court or give them a zone pressure look after a made basket.
“It’s tricky, because you have one day to prepare for all of that stuff,” said Fortier, who noted that the Zags have faced varied pressure this year from San Diego, Stephen F. Austin and Portland.
“And I’m thankful that we’ve seen some different types of pressure defenses, because you can’t prepare for everything in one day where you’re not trying to overdo it,” Fortier said.
No matter the outcome, GU guard Kaylynne Truong put the game in perspective.
“We should just have fun because that’s what basketball’s about,” Truong said. “We should have fun and play together and play with your friends. That’s what we’re here for.”
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