In an effort to jump-start attendance in the first and second rounds of the Division I women’s basketball tournament, the NCAA has scheduled games at arenas where the ladies tend to make turnstiles spin at a higher rate.
Division I men’s teams play all NCAA tournament games at neutral sites. But Gonzaga’s women make no apologies for opening at home for the third straight year because the Bulldogs are 27-5 with 15 straight wins, and they’ll play before their seventh sellout crowd of the season today in the first round.
Iowa State (23-8) is seeded fifth in the Spokane Region and ranked 23rd nationally, but the Cyclones were forced to make the long trip to Spokane to face unranked, 12th-seeded Gonzaga at 1:15 p.m. on ESPN2.
“The night of the selection,” longtime Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly said Friday, “I probably had 20 text messages saying, ‘Congratulations, and you got a terrible draw.’ ”
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Fennelly said he’s not too concerned about playing Gonzaga at the McCarthey Athletic Center, which will seat slightly less than the usual 6,000 due to various needs and wants of NCAA tournament officials. The
Cyclones average 9,970 at home.
“I don’t put too much stock in where the games are played,” Fennelly said. “We played in a lot of great venues. I think our kids are going to enjoy the atmosphere.”
The Bulldogs and Cyclones have good size and love to get up and down the floor. Iowa State’s tallest starter is 6-foot-7 senior center Anna Prins. Gonzaga’s tallest player is 6-5 center Shelby Cheslek, a redshirt freshman from Pullman.
Gonzaga dominated the West Coast Conference, but the WCC is vastly inferior to the Big 12 Conference. The Cyclones came in second to top-ranked Baylor in the Big 12 regular season and tournament.
“Definitely worried about their size, their physicality,” said Gonzaga senior guard Taelor Karr.
All-Big 12 forward Hallie Christofferson, a 6-3 junior, leads the Cyclones in scoring with 15.6 points a game (plus 6.6 rebounds). Chelsea Poppens, a 6-2 senior forward, adds 13.1 points and a team-high 9.5 rebounds.
Prins, who has attempted 88 3-pointers (making just 25), averages 12.0 points and 5.3 rebounds. Point guard Nikki Moody ranks among the national leaders with 7.3 assists, and she averages 8.4 points.
“They execute as well as any team in the country,” Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves said.
Gonzaga’s leading scorers are All-WCC guards Haiden Palmer (12.4) and Karr (10.8). Palmer spent her freshman year at Oregon State, and Karr played two seasons at Kansas State before moving west last season.
Karr, a Kansas native, said she originally wanted to play for the Cyclones out of high school.
“They have a great coaching staff and are always well-prepared,” Karr said. “They play hard. They’ve got a lot of good kids inside, a lot of experience.”
The Bulldogs’ scoring average of 69.5 is slightly better than Iowa State’s 67.5, but the quality of competition must be taken into consideration. Gonzaga’s offense is no match for the 2010-11 Zags squad that led the nation with 85.3 ppg behind current WNBA point guard Courtney Vandersloot, a former Kentwood High standout.
The Iowa State-Gonzaga winner plays Monday night at McCarthey against the winner of today’s 3:45 p.m. nightcap matching fourth-seeded Georgia (25-6) and 13th-seeded Montana (24-7).
Georgia is ranked 14th. Gonzaga came in 28th in voting for the Associated Press Top 25 this week.
The Bulldogs, NCAA tournament qualifiers for the fifth straight year (Iowa State has made it seven years in a row), are two wins away from a fourth consecutive Sweet 16 trip. They’ll play in the Spokane Arena next week if they qualify.