SPOKANE - “Zag Mania” is alive and well in the Lilac City.
The 20th-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs, playing on their home court before a packed house and a national television audience, held off No. 25 Iowa, 92-86, in a sensational opening-round game Saturday afternoon in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.
“That really was a great college basketball game,” Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves said. “I don’t care at what level, what gender. That was just good basketball.”
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“It was one of those games that was just hard fought by both teams,” Gonzaga star Courtney Vandersloot said. “I think every single player out there gave it their all.”
A crowd-pleasing, run-and-gun game that was close throughout was not decided until Vandersloot calmly made six free throws in a row in the final 41 seconds. The last of those free throws was the senior point guard’s 34th point, one more than her previous career high.
“She was terrific,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “It’ll be fun to watch her at the next level.”
“It was a tough game,” said Vandersloot, a Kentwood High School graduate. “Iowa is a great team The competition in our conference (the West Coast Conference) was nothing compared to Iowa.”
The 11th-seeded Bulldogs (29-4) won their 19th consecutive game and tied the year-old school record for wins. Gonzaga remains at home to face eighth-ranked UCLA (28-4), the No. 3 seed in the Spokane Region, at approximately 6:30 p.m. Monday on ESPN2.
Perhaps the ultimate tribute to the quality of Saturday’s game is that Vandersloot – who had seven assists, seven rebounds and four steals in a brilliant performance – was not the game’s lone star.
Instead, she shared the spotlight with Gonzaga forward Kayla Standish (a career-high 30 points, plus seven rebounds) and Iowa guards Jaime Printy (25 points) and Kachine Alexander (18 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists).
In the end, the home advantage may have been the difference between two explosive teams playing at a high level. The sellout crowd of 5,632 – slightly less than the standard 6,000 capacity of Gonzaga’s McCarthey Athletic Center, due to NCAA needs for some of the seating – was loud, lively and enthusiastic from the opening tip.
“The great atmosphere helped both teams play well,” Graves said.
“They have a great crowd here, which is fantastic,” Alexander said. “They’re a great team, anyway, so playing on their home court gave them even more of an advantage.”
Vandersloot, a little pony-tailed blonde with seemingly endless energy, was 10-for-23 from the field (3-for-5 from 3-point range) and made all 11 of her free throws. Alexander, a noted defender, drew praise from Graves for her work against Vandersloot, an All-America candidate and WNBA prospect.
“She’s a great guard I was trying to find her in transition, which was kind of hard for me because I crash (the boards) a lot,” Alexander said.
“We get to see this (Vandersloot’s multiple skills) game-in and game-out,” Graves said. “She got to show the rest of the nation today a lot more about Courtney Vandersloot.”
Sixth-seeded Iowa (22-9) led at halftime, 44-37, in part because the Zags missed some open looks late. Gonzaga went ahead for good when Standish hit a baseline jumper for a 67-65 lead with nine minutes remaining in the game, but Iowa twice cut the deficit to two in the final 21/2 minutes.
“We’ve never been a team to give up,” Printy said.
Four players on each team scored 10 or more points. The Bulldogs, who started the day ranked first in NCAA Division I in scoring (86.1) and second in field-goal shooting percentage (49.9), shot 57 percent in the second half to finish at 48 percent for the game.
“I’d like to congratulate Iowa on a great season,” Graves said. “They’re a tremendous basketball team.”
Bluder was expansive in her praise of the crowd (“a great environment”), the Bulldogs in general (“terrific offense”) and Standish in particular (“she was excellent”).