Gonzaga’s Palmer all heart on, off court

SPOKANE — Jeff Judkins, the longtime women’s basketball coach at BYU, was not happy. His team had just been pummeled by Gonzaga in the championship game of the West Coast Conference tournament, and Judkins looked like a man whose dog had been run over by a truck.

And yet, a hint of a smile tugged at the corners of Judkins’ mouth when the former NBA player heard someone mention Gonzaga senior guard Haiden Palmer.

“We’re glad she’s graduating,” Judkins deadpanned. “That’ll be nice.

“She’s the heart and soul of that team.”

Palmer’s teammates and coaches will vouch for that, and so will the stat sheet. On a team with four players 6-foot-3 or taller — and two more at 6-2 — the 5-8 Palmer leads the 18th-ranked Bulldogs with 5.5 rebounds per game. She’s also first in scoring at 15.1, and her 3.1 steals ranked second in the nation heading into postseason play.

The Bulldogs (29-4) make their sixth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance Sunday, taking on James Madison (28-5) of Harrisonburg, Va. Tipoff at Texas A&M’s Reed Arena in College Station is set for 2:30 p.m. on ESPN.

Gonzaga has won six consecutive games and is 19-1 over the past three months. The perennial WCC powerhouse ranks among the national attendance leaders with 5,426 per

game, and Palmer’s talent, energy and personality helped fill the McCarthey Athletic Center.

“The way she gets hyped on the floor, it gets everyone energized and wanting to do great things,” Gonzaga junior guard Keani Albanez said.

“She never has an off day,” Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves said. “I never — not one time in her four years here — have said, ‘Hey, c’mon! Let’s go!’

“She’s just that consistent, hard worker. Leads by example. She’s not that vocal, but she’s kind of a ‘mother hen’ type. She picks people up.”

Indeed, Albanez refers to Palmer as her “confidante and mentor.” When Albanez led Gonzaga with 20 points in the WCC tournament title game March 11 in Las Vegas, Palmer said she “felt kind of like a proud parent.”

Palmer’s warm personality and gentle nature — she’s heavily involved in volunteer work in Spokane — might come as a surprise to fans who only know her for her ferocious, floor-burns-a-blazin’ style of play.

“The persona she projects is far different than who she really is,” Graves said. “She has a soft heart.

“All the stuff she’s given the community is incredible, and just the way she treats others. The way she lives her life.”

Palmer, a two-time all-WCC selection, made the all-WCC academic team this season after posting a 4.0 grade-point average in her master’s degree work in communication and leadership. The Moreno Valley, Calif., native graduated last year with a bachelor’s degree in sports management.

Palmer redshirted at Gonzaga in 2010-11 after making the all-freshman team in the Pacific-10 Conference at Oregon State. Palmer was one of several Beavers who left the program after coach LaVonda Wagner was accused of physically and mentally abusing players before she was fired.

California, Arizona and San Diego State were among Palmer’s other suitors, but she says she found what she was looking for when she visited the little Catholic school in Spokane.

“I loved the team,” Palmer said. “I loved the coach, the community. I heard so much about the fans.”

Palmer said she benefited from regularly practicing during her redshirt season against former Kentwood High School star Courtney Vandersloot, who is widely recognized as the greatest player in Gonzaga women’s basketball history. Palmer hopes to join Vandersloot in the WNBA this summer.

First, however, Palmer plans to lead Gonzaga on a deep run in the NCAA tournament after the Bulldogs received the highest seed (sixth in the Lincoln Regional) in team history.