SPOKANE - Gonzaga women's basketball coach Kelly Graves spoke at length Sunday about UCLA's "tremendous" defense and "physical" players and "aggressive" style of play.
Finally, Graves cut to the chase and identified the key to Gonzaga’s chances against the Bruins and their vaunted fullcourt press.
“Bottom line,” Graves said, “it’s going to come down to Courtney and how well she can handle that kind of pressure.”
“Courtney,” of course, is Courtney Vandersloot. The senior point guard out of Kentwood High School, arguably the most talented and popular female athlete in Gonzaga history, must deal with one of the nation’s most effective and ferocious presses tonight when the 20th-ranked Bulldogs (29-4) take on No. 8 UCLA (28-4) in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
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Game time is approximately 6:30 on ESPN2.
“Like any press, you want to attack it,” Vandersloot said. “They’re big. You definitely don’t want to pick up your dribble, because you’re going to be surrounded by big players.”
Vandersloot made 23 turnovers in three NCAA tournament games last season. During the offseason, Vandesloot dedicated herself to getting stronger and improving against defensive pressure.
The result? Vandersloot leads the nation with an assist-turnover ratio of better than 3-1.
“As a coach,” Graves said, “it’s very comforting knowing the ball’s in her hands.”
The Bruins, seeded third in the Spokane Region, must deal with an 11th-seeded Gonzaga squad that has won 19 consecutive games. That includes 12 straight at Gonzaga’s McCarthey Athletic Center, where a packed house will be filled almost entirely with Bulldogs fans.
“It’s going to be a great atmosphere,” UCLA coach Nikki Caldwell said. “It’s going to be an atmosphere that’s obviously going to be in Gonzaga’s favor, but it’s one that really shows the passion for women’s basketball.”
The Bruins average a modest 65.3 points per game – senior guard Darxia Morris is the leading scorer at 12.0 points per game – but UCLA gives up just 54.3 ppg. Gonzaga leads the nation in scoring at 86.2.
“We’ve got to get our tempo going,” Gonzaga wing Katelan Redmon said. “We can’t allow them to slow down the pace of the game.”
The winner advances to the Sweet 16 on Saturday at the Spokane Veterans Arena.
Gonzaga has tied the year-old school record for wins. The Bruins are one shy of their year-old record for wins. ... Vandersloot needs 10 points to become the first Division I woman with 2,000 points and 1,000 assists in her career. ... Vandersloot and Kayla Standish became the first Bulldogs to score 30 or more points in the same game in Saturday’s 92-86 win over No. 25 Iowa. ... Standish moved up to No. 11 in the country in field-goal percentage (56.2) after she scored 30 points on 15-for-20 shooting. ... UCLA is 16-2 away from home. ... UCLA is 0-3 against second-ranked Stanford. The Cardinal is the only team to win at Gonzaga this season (84-78 on Nov. 21). ... Caldwell won three NCAA championship rings at Tennessee – one as a player and two as an assistant coach. ... UCLA ranks seventh in the nation in steals (12.8). Gonzaga is sixth for fewest turnovers (13.5). ... Graves said several people told him the Gonzaga-Iowa contest might have been the best women’s basketball game of the season.