The Gonzaga Bulldogs had just lost to Brigham Young in the championship game of the West Coast Conference women’s basketball tournament in Las Vegas earlier this month, and Haiden Palmer was plenty steamed when she arrived in the interview room at the Orleans Arena.
Statistically, Palmer had just played the best game of her life. The fiery sophomore guard worked feverishly at both ends of the court, sank 12 of 17 shots (including four of six from threepoint range) and scored a career-high 28 points.
Still, Gonzaga had lost. When a reporter asked Palmer if it was her best game, Palmer fired back an answer almost as quickly as she fires a jump shot.
“No,” she said firmly. “Only if you win.”
Welcome to the basketball world of Haiden Palmer. She plays, as they say, with her hair on fire. Anyone who stands in her way risks getting burned, and opposing players who face Gonzaga in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Spokane this weekend may learn that first-hand.
“Haiden’s just a completely different player or look than we’ve ever had,” Gonzaga senior forward Kelly Bowen says. “I mean, she’s just tremendous.
“I’ve never played on a team with someone who can just score basically at will over any kind of opponent. She’s emotional, too, and we’ve never really had that as well. She just feeds off energy and is just such a gamer.”
Palmer was a four-time all-league player at her Moreno Valley, Calif., high school. She never made all-state, however, and Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves did not recruit her.
“She wasn’t a great high school player,” Graves says.
Palmer, however, blossomed as a freshman at Oregon State. When Palmer joined the long list of players who transferred from a program that was in turmoil, Gonzaga beat out schools like California, Arizona and San Diego State for her services.
“If you need a couple words to describe her from her coach, I think Number 1 is ‘fearless,’” Graves says. “Number 2 is ‘passionate.’ Number 3 is ‘Dwyane Wade-like.’”
It’s not often that a female basketball player in Spokane is compared to an NBA superstar in Miami, but let Graves explain.
“At any point, she can just go off and have big, big nights,” Graves said. “She’s a gamer, no question about it.
“She’s the one who hit the three to win the game against Georgia. She’s had other big shots this year. She’s a tough kid, a physical kid. She’s a competitor.”
Palmer averages 12.4 points per game for the Bulldogs. Her conference’s coaches voted her co- Newcomer of the Year, and she made honorable mention all-league. Palmer says she’s delighted she chose to come to Gonzaga.
“Great community, great team, great coach,” Palmer says. “They just really welcomed me. I felt most comfortable here.”
Palmer had to sit out Gonzaga’s best-ever season last year to satisfy NCAA transfer rules, but she honed her game by practicing against All-American point guard Courtney Vandersloot.
“It obviously helped my defensive game a lot,” Palmer says. “Guarding her helped me offensively, too, trying to copy her. Mostly, though, her work ethic [helped me improve].
She was always lifting extra [weights], shooting extra, stuff like that. I’d try to do that with her.”
The two remain good friends and have stayed in contact while Vandersloot plays professionally in Turkey between Women’s NBA seasons. Palmer can’t wait to tell her buddy how well the Zags fare in the NCAA tournament, because Palmer had a quick response when asked how far Gonzaga can go: “All the way.”