When I approached Gonzaga women’s basketball coach Kelly Graves last summer with the idea of a two-part series focused on “Life After Courtney Vandersloot,” he told me he was actually optimistic.
And why not? He was returning four seniors, including his all-WCC selections, Kayla Standish and Katelan Redmon, in addition to Haiden Palmer, a red-shirt transfer from Oregon State. To make things even more promising, a few days later word came from the NCAA that his other experienced transfer, Taelor Karr from Kansas State, wouldn’t have to sit out a year. He had some up-and-coming sophomores, and he liked his bevy of incoming freshmen.
Then, a word of caution: “Top to bottom, the conference will be much, much tougher this year. And I know how good BYU can be; we won’t be winning by the margins we put up with Courtney.” Graves paused. “But at the end of the season, I’m very confident we will be right there.”
Turns out he had it about right. The Gonzaga women finished regular season play at 25-4 (14-2 in conference) after thumping BYU 77-60 in the McCarthey Athletic Center on Saturday night. This earned them the No. 1 seed and a double bye in this weekend’s conference tournament in Las Vegas.
Palmer and Karr have contributed all that Graves could have hoped. They brought dangerous outside shooting, good ball handling and a mature sense of the game. Standish? Well, Kayla just picked up where she left off last year. Her double-doubles have become routine. Heading into the BYU game, she was fifth in the conference in scoring and third in rebounding.
Katelan Redmon had the biggest adjustment to make in the post-Courtney world. “Katelan’s game is transition,” observes Graves. “She hasn’t been getting those run-outs that she got with Courtney.” Last year, Redmon remarked that, “Courtney would get me the ball even when I didn’t think I was open.”
Overall, Graves has likened last year’s team to a “symphony orchestra,” and this year’s to a “garage rock band — not pretty, but very gritty.”
The grit was on display in their December Las Vegas encounter against the nationally ranked Georgia Bulldogs. Gonzaga trailed the entire game; with 54 seconds left, the Georgia lead was still seven, 59-66. Then, whoosh! Standish, two free throws; Redmon, jumper; Karr, three-pointer; steal by Palmer and lay-in; Georgia misses, rebound Standish, pass to Redmon, pass to Palmer who drains a three-pointer for the team’s first lead.
Game over, 71-68. And don’t forget the second St. Mary’s game. On the road. This was a must-win for Gonzaga. At the time, St. Mary’s was undefeated and had beaten GU here in Spokane. Trailing the Zags at halftime 26-41, the Gaels came out strong in the second half. The lead disappeared and with less than four minutes left, the Gaels went up by four, 59-63. The season on the line, Kelly’s gritty team again figured out a way — they won by five.
Finally, on Saturday, BYU rolls into McCarthey to play Graves’ gritty garage band, which proceeded to play more like a symphony, if not with the precision of a Bach, surely with the creativity, color and intensity of a Stravinsky. Kelly’s “not natural point guards” seemed to see the court more vividly — giving Redmon back her transition game, 28 points worth. Standish had played tentatively against the Cougars’ formidable front line in Provo, missing her first 10 shots. But on Saturday, she demanded the ball and finished off most every opportunity.
BYU made a run during the second half. Star guard Hayley Steed had drained three treys in 90 seconds. At the 9:58 mark, Graves motioned his defensive ace, Jazmine Redmon, back into the game. Steed didn’t score another point.
Gonzaga 77, BYU 60. Eight championships in a row. Kelly Graves’ gritty garage band had pulled it off and done it their way.