When Kelly Graves thinks back to his early years as the women’s basketball coach at Gonzaga University, he doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
The Bulldogs were not just bad — they were pathetic. And boring: Players lumbered up and down the court. Shots were as likely to hit seats as baskets. It didn’t matter though: Most of the seats were empty.
“Kelly and I used to have long conversations — and sometimes short conversations — about, ‘We need to get more people to come to the games,’” athletic director Mike Roth says. “I would say, ‘No we don’t. We need to get better, because we don’t want people to come to the game and not come back. We want to put something on the floor that they’re going to want to come and see.’” A decade removed from Graves’ first year at Gonzaga, when the team went 5-23 for the season (and the average attendance was less than 600), the Bulldogs are 30-4, ranked 20th in the country and drew sellout crowds of approximately 6,000 for their last three home games.
“When I first started here,” Graves says, “it was mom, dad, some roommates, a couple people who just happened to wander into the gym not knowing that there was actually a game here.
“I think any time you see crowds like this, there’s a lot of factors involved. Number one, we got better. Each year we’ve gotten a bigger and bigger audience. Secondly, we play a style that’s conducive to people wanting to come out and watch. It’s fun,” he says.
Today the Bulldogs fly up and down the court and lead the nation in scoring with 86 points per game. Dynamic point guard Courtney Vandersloot heads the charge.
“I’ve told people all year, ‘Boy, you want to come watch her play, because it’s something you’ll never get to see again,’” Roth says. “She’s such a special player. It’s maybe a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “ Vandersloot has become one of the Inland Northwest’s most popular athletes during her four years at Gonzaga. “We have something special here,” Vandersloot says. “The Spokane community really does love women’s basketball.”
Opponents had nothing but praise for Gonzaga fans even after losing tight, exciting NCAA tournament games before raucous audiences at McCarthey this past Saturday and Monday.
“It’s a great environment,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder says.
“They have a great crowd here, which is fantastic,“ Iowa guard Kachine Alexander says. “They’re a great team, anyway, so playing on their home court gave them even more of an advantage.”
“Really shows the passion for women’s basketball,” UCLA coach Nikki Caldwell says.
Graves heaps praise on Roth and other Gonzaga administrators for promoting women’s basketball. Roth insists that Graves, Gonzaga’s assistant coaches and the players deserve most of the credit for making Bulldogs women’s basketball a go-to sports event.
“Spokane does a great job of supporting events,” Roth says. “They support good events. Hoopfest: great event. Bloomsday: great event. Gonzaga women’s basketball.”
The Bulldogs’ second straight appearance in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament is predicted to spike attendance at the regional games being held at the Spokane Arena on Saturday and Monday. The arena seats more than 10,000, and even Roth would love to see the place packed with Zags fans.
THE BASICS: Second-ranked Standford (31-2 with 25 straight wins) is seeded first in the Spokane Region. Loaded with size, depth and experience, Stanford plays North Carolina on Saturday.
THE PLAYERS: Jeanette Pohlen, 6-0 sr. G, 14.8 points per game, 4.8 assists per game. Nnemhedi Ogwumike, 6-2 jr. F, 16.8 ppg, 7.7 rebounds per game. Kayla Pedersen, 6-4 sr. F, 12.9 ppg, 7.8 rpg.
THE BASICS: The 14th-ranked Tar Heels (27-8) are seeded fifth in the Spokane Region. North Carolina has good size and experience and can score effectively inside or from the perimeter.
THE PLAYERS: Italee Lucas, 5-8 sr. G, 16.0 ppg, 2.6 apg. Jessica Breland, 6-2 sr. F, 12.7 ppg, 7.1 rpg. Cetera DeGraffenreid, 5-6 sr. PG, 7.9 ppg, 4.9 apg, 2.7 steals per game.
THE BASICS: The 20th-ranked Bulldogs (30-4 with 20 straight wins) are seeded 11th in the Spokane Region. The Bulldogs lead the nation in scoring with 86 points per game. Gonzaga plays Saturday against the winner of Tuesday’s scheduled game between Xavier and Louisville.
THE PLAYERS: Courtney Vandersloot, 5-8 sr. PG, 19.4 ppg, 10.3 apg, 3.1 spg. Kayla Standish, 6-3 jr. F, 17.4 ppg, 8.7 rpg. Katelan Redmon, 6-1 jr. G-F, 17.0 ppg, 6.3 rpg.
THE BASICS: The fifth-ranked Musketeers (31-2, with 19 straight wins through Monday) are seeded second in the Spokane Region. Xavier, the Cincinnati team that beat Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 last year, has great size and talent inside.
THE PLAYERS: (statistics through Monday): Amber Harris, 6-5 sr. C, 18.7 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 2.8 blocked shots per game. Ta’Shia Phillips, 6-6 sr. F, 16.3 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 60.4 percent field-goal shooting. Special Jennings, 5-6 sr. PG, 8.7 ppg, 5.1 apg.
THE BASICS: The unranked Cardinals (21-12 prior through Monday) are seeded seventh in the Spokane Region. Shoni Schimmel, a freshman out of Franklin High in Portland, is a key contributor.
THE PLAYERS: (statistics through Monday): Monique Reid, 6-1 sr. F, 16.0 ppg, 6.3 rpg. Shoni Schimmel, 5-10 fr. G, 14.5 ppg, 5.0 apg. Tia Gibbs, 5-9 so. G, 8.5 ppg, 2.6 spg.
NCAA women’s basketball tournament • Sat, March 26, and Mon, March 28 • Spokane Arena • Tickets: $51.75 • ticketswest.com • (800) 325-SEAT