SPOKANE - Kelly Graves looks back to his early years as the women's basketball coach at Gonzaga University, and he doesn't know whether to laugh or cry.
The Bulldogs were not just bad, they were pathetic. As an added bonus, they were boring.
Players lumbered up and down the court. Shots were as likely to hit seats as baskets. Of course, 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 recalled.
“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 a 5-23 record in Graves’ first season at Gonzaga – when 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 at GU’s McCarthey Athletic Center.
Now the Bulldogs are talking about selling out their third-round NCAA tournament game – otherwise known as the Sweet 16 – on Saturday at the nearby Spokane Arena, which seats more than 10,000. Approximately 8,000 tickets have been sold.
“When I first started here,” Graves mused, “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.”
The Bulldogs fly up and down the court and lead the nation in scoring with 86 points per game. Dynamic point guard Courtney Vandersloot, a senior from Kentwood High School, leads the way.
“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 said. “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. She is a key reason why more than 5,000 all-session tickets have been sold for the tournament games Saturday and Monday at the arena.
Vandersloot’s presence figured prominently in Gonzaga selling 2,756 season tickets and averaging 4,060 fans at the McCarthey Athletic Center this season.
Both figures are school records and topped the numbers for every other West Coast Conference basketball team – men or women – except the Gonzaga men’s team, which sold out every game (6,000).
“We have something special here,” Vandersloot said. “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 said.
“They have a great crowd here, which is fantastic,” Iowa guard Kachine Alexander said.
“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 said.
Graves heaps praise on Roth and other Gonzaga administrators for promoting women’s basketball. Roth insists that Graves and his staff and the players deserve most of the credit for making Bulldogs women’s basketball a go-to sports event.
The Bulldogs, seeded 11th in the Spokane Regional, take on No. 7 seed Louisville (22-12) at 6 p.m. Saturday on ESPN.
The unranked Cardinals upset fifth-ranked Xavier, the Cincinnati team that beat Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 last year, to make it to Spokane.
Second-ranked Stanford (31-2), the No. 1 seed in the regional, faces 14th-ranked and fifth-seeded North Carolina (27-8) at 8:30 p.m. Saturday on ESPN2.
Saturday’s winners play Monday night in Spokane Arena for a berth in the women’s Final Four in Indianapolis.