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Nail-biter does not fall for Hawks

[ 5 ] March 19, 2011 |

SPOKANE, Wash. — Zag Mania is alive and well in the Lilac City.

Barely.

The 20th-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs, playing on their home court before a packed house and a national television audience, barely held off No. 25 Iowa, 92-86, in a sensational opening-round game Saturday afternoon in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.

“That really was a great college basketball game,” Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves said. “I don’t care at what level, what gender. That was just good basketball.”

“It was one of those games that was just hard fought by both teams,” Gonzaga star Courtney Vandersloot said. “I think every single player out there gave it their all.”

A crowd-pleasing, run-and-gun game that was close throughout was not decided until Vandersloot calmly sank six straight free throws in the final 41 seconds. The last of those free throws was the senior point guard’s 34th point, one more than her previous career high.

“She was terrific,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “It’ll be fun to watch her at the next level.”

“It was a tough game,” Vandersloot said. “Iowa is a great team … the competition in our conference (the West Coast Conference) was nothing compared to Iowa.”

Perhaps the ultimate tribute to the quality of Saturday’s game is that Vandersloot — who had seven assists, seven rebounds and four steals in a brilliant performance — did not single-handedly hog the spotlight.

Instead, she shared it with Gonzaga forward Kayla Standish (a career-high 30 points, plus seven rebounds) and Iowa guards Jaime Printy (25 points) and Kachine Alexander (18 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists).

In the end, the home-court advantage may have been the difference between two explosive teams playing at a high level. The sellout crowd of 5,632 — slightly less than the standard 6,000 capacity of Gonzaga’s McCarthey Athletic Center, due to NCAA needs and wants for some of the seating — was loud, lively and into it from the opening tip.

“The great atmosphere helped both teams play well,” Graves said.

“They have a great crowd here, which is fantastic,” Alexander said. “They’re a great team, anyway, so playing on their home court gave them even more of an advantage.”

Vandersloot, a little pony-tailed blonde with seemingly endless energy, sank 10 of 23 field-goal attempts (3 of 5 from 3-point range) and all 11 of her free throws. Alexander, a noted defender, drew praise from Graves for her work against Vandersloot, an All-America candidate and WNBA prospect.

“She’s a great guard … I was trying to find her in transition, which was kind of hard for me because I crash (the boards) a lot,” Alexander said.

“We get to see this (Vandersloot’s multiple skills) game in and game out,” Graves said. “She got to show the rest of the nation today a lot more about Courtney Vandersloot.”

Iowa (22-9) led 44-37 at halftime, in part because Gonzaga (29-4) missed some open looks in the final minutes. Gonzaga went ahead for good when Standish hit a baseline jumper to push the Zags ahead 67-65 with nine minutes left in the game, but Iowa twice pulled within two in the final 2½ minutes.

“We’ve never been a team to give up,” Printy said.

Printy, a sweet-shooting sophomore from Linn-Mar High in Marion, tied her career high by knocking down five of her 12 attempts from 3-point range. She often was guarded by Canadian national team veteran Janelle Bekkering, a highly respected defensive player.

Four players on each team scored 10 or more points. Kelly Krei, the former City High standout, nailed 4 of 9 from beyond the 3-point arc and finished with 15 points and five rebounds.

“I’d like to congratulate Iowa on a great season,” Graves said. “They’re a tremendous basketball team.”

The game marked the end of a brilliant career for Alexander, a Minneapolis native who may be destined to earn honorable mention All-America honors — at least — for the second straight year.

Iowa’s other senior, former Norwalk High School star Kelsey Cermak, scored five points off the bench Saturday.

“Both (seniors) have done so much for our program,” Bluder said. “Four straight NCAA appearances, no lower than third place in the Big Ten, four 20-win seasons in a row.

“They’ve established a legacy. They’ve just been amazing. They’ve been great leaders, too.

“They’re wonderful people.”

Bluder was expansive in her praise of the crowd (“a great environment”), the Bulldogs in general (“terrific offense”) and Standish in particular (“she was excellent”). Gonzaga leads the nation with 86.2 points per game, and Vandersloot leads in assists with 10.1.

Extra shots: Gonzaga, the 11th seed in the Spokane Region (Iowa was sixth), plays eighth-ranked UCLA on Monday at McCarthey. If the Bulldogs beat the Bruins (28-4), they’ll go the Sweet 16 — starting next Saturday at the Spokane Veterans Arena — for the second straight year. … Gonzaga has won 19 straight games, and 13 in a row at home. The Bulldogs are 30-1 at home the past two years, losing only to Stanford (currently ranked second) early this season. … Gonzaga had been 0-5 against Big Ten teams. … Alexander broke her year-old school record for free throws made, finishing with 148. … Printy became the first sophomore in school history to top 1,000 career points. She set the freshman record of 501 points, and her 520 points this season rank second among sophomores behind the 539 of Kristi Faulkner in 2002-03. … Iowa’s band and cheerleaders were on hand along with about two dozen Hawkeyes fans who sat right behind the team bench area.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes women's basketball

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