SPOKANE - Growing up in Kent, Courtney Vandersloot did not always take advantage of the basketball court her father built in the backyard.
“I was scared of the woods behind our house,” Vandersloot admitted with a laugh. “I was scared of robbers coming to get me – kidnappers.”
Besides, Vandersloot explained, there was another reason she preferred to play elsewhere against the neighborhood boys.
“I was always picked first,” she said with a grin.
Barring a kidnapping, Vandersloot figures to be one of the featured attractions tonight in the biggest game in Gonzaga women’s basketball history.
The 20th-ranked Bulldogs take on second-ranked Stanford in the Spokane Regional title game (6 p.m., ESPN), part of the Elite Eight segment of the NCAA tournament. Tonight’s winner at the Spokane Arena advances to the Final Four in Indianapolis next weekend.
Stanford (32-2), riding a 26-game winning streak, is bidding for a fourth consecutive Final Four. Last year, the Cardinal made it to the national title game but lost to Connecticut.
Gonzaga (31-4), on a 21-game winning streak, is attempting to become the first team from its school – male or female – to make it to the Final Four. The Bulldogs lost three starters from last year’s Sweet 16 team, but Vandersloot said she’s not surprised by Gonzaga’s success this season.
“We expected to be here,” the Kentwood High School graduate said Sunday outside Gonzaga’s dressing room at Spokane Arena. “We would have been disappointed if we weren’t.”
Vandersloot said, “We know that we have done something special here, but we’re not taking it for granted. We’re enjoying it, but at the same time, we want to keep going.”
That would be no small achievement considering Stanford’s tall and talented lineup. Three Cardinal starters range from 6-foot-2 to 6-4, and two key reserves are 6-4 and 6-5. Gonzaga’s tallest regular is Kayla Standish, listed at various times as 6-3 and 6-2 by Gonzaga.
Stanford also has an unusually tall and powerful point guard in 6-foot Jeanette Pohlen, the Pacific-10 Conference Player of the Year.
Vandersloot, Gonzaga’s point guard, is 5-8 and quicker than Pohlen, but no one questions the skills of the seniors.
Stanford guard Lindy La Rocque described Vandersloot, the West Coast Conference Player of the Year, as “the motor to their team the head of their horse.”
“There’s a lot of weapons on Stanford that we have to worry about, not just Jeanette,” Vandersloot said. “But we have to make her work for everything, pressure her, not let her get open looks.”
Pohlen, who averages 14.6 points and 4.8 assists, has scored just 14 points on 4-for-22 shooting the past two games. Vandersloot, who averages 19.2 points and 10.2 assists (first in NCAA Division I), has scored 29 points each of the past two games on combined 14-for-23 shooting.
The Bulldogs have benefited from playing in front of large, boisterous crowds in Spokane during close wins in all three of their tournament games. Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer and her players said they look forward to performing before a potential sellout crowd of more than 11,000.
“It’s great for women’s basketball,” VanDerveer said.
Stanford defeated Gonzaga, 84-78, on Nov. 21 at McCarthey Athletic Center, the Bulldogs’ home court in Spokane. It was the third game of the season for both teams. Vandersloot, Pohlen, Nnemkadi Ogwumike and Stanford forward Kayla Pedersen are among 20 finalists for the John R. Wooden Award as national player of the year. Gonzaga leads the nation in scoring (86.0) and field-goal shooting percentage (49.8). Stanford averages 81.2 points and shoots 48.9 percent. Gonzaga’s opponents average 62.2 points and shoot 39 percent. Stanford’s rivals average 50.8 points and shoot 33.5 percent.