Gonzaga lands major win
In an NCAA tournament quickly coming to represent the rise of mid-majors in women's college basketball, what transpired in Seattle on Monday night could easily be cast as the culmination of the story. Easily, but perhaps not entirely accurately.
The biggest upset of the tournament's first three days, seventh-seeded Gonzaga's 72-71 victory against No. 2 seed Texas A&M, might represent something more than a big win for the little guys.
Instead, it's the culmination of a different story, one Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves has been working on for a decade.
Beating North Carolina and Texas A&M to reach the Sweet 16 might mark the rise of the game's newest major.
Graves is a big, genuinely genial guy. Sitting in a restaurant the night before the season opener at South Dakota State, he sat and soaked in the aspersions that two of his best players, Courtney Vandersloot and Heather Bowman, cast at his choice of Hawaiian shirts. Less than an hour after the biggest win of his coaching career, before he has even had a chance to kiss his wife, he not only takes time to return a call but tells you to come out next season for some fishing and waterskiing, and a little basketball if time allows.
About the only way to elicit even a hint of irritation, other than perhaps missing a rebounding assignment or committing a careless turnover, is to bring up the mid-major label that comes attached to any team from the West Coast Conference.
"We don't think of ourselves as a mid-major," Graves said by phone after Monday's win. "I get that question a lot and I say we fly in a private jet to our games, we get great crowds and play in a beautiful building. I schedule big-time teams; we play a great schedule. Other than perhaps the conference that we play in -- and that's not to disrespect the WCC -- there's really nothing about our program that's mid-major. We recruit big-time payers, top-100 kids.
"There's just something about Gonzaga; there's a great atmosphere. Gonzaga basketball, men's and women's, is just part of the culture in Spokane."
And despite a second-round exit for the men's team over the weekend, the city will be celebrating a continuation of its basketball season due in large part to Vivian Frieson, for whom there really was no place like home in the Emerald City.
Playing in front of her hometown crowd, Frieson scored 23 points and added nine rebounds and five assists against Texas A&M.
With starting point guard and All-America candidate Courtney Vandersloot on the bench after fouling out with 1:23 to play, all Frieson -- essentially a small forward or even power forward when needed -- did was repeatedly bring the ball up court against the Aggies' pressure, grab a defensive rebound with her team trailing by a point with less than a minute left, and hit the eventual game-winning jump shot with 21 seconds to play.
Not to mention the 3-pointer she hit to tie the score at 65 minutes before that final sequence unfolded. You know, her second 3-pointer of the season.
In doing all of that, the senior prolonged her own career, guided Gonzaga to its first Sweet 16 and, finally and unequivocally, escaped the shadow of teammates like Vandersloot, already a two-time conference player of the year as a junior, and Heather Bowman, the WCC's all-time leading scorer.
"She is beloved in Spokane," Graves said of Frieson. "What a personality, what a flair for the dramatic. She just plays with great passion. I think Vivian deserves a lot of credit. She put us on her back tonight. And you know -- aside from the big shots she made all night, the blocks, the key rebounds -- her calming presence on the floor I thought was the key. Obviously, Courtney wasn't herself tonight, pressing a little bit too much, but Vivian never wavered the whole night. And that calming influence and presence really carried us."
Home is not an unfamiliar theme for the Bulldogs. In addition to Frieson's homecoming, redshirt sophomore and rising star Katelan Redmon came up huge on an off night for Vandersloot and Bowman, playing in the same gym she did as a freshman at the University of Washington before she transferred home to Spokane.
And home is exactly what Graves has made Spokane. He has spent his entire coaching life in an area that offers no shortage of talent but which often lacks for attention; he started at Big Bend Community College in Washington before stints at the University of Portland and Saint Mary's.
And like men's coach Mark Few, who has famously stayed at Gonzaga despite constant rumors he'll move on to a "bigger" program, he's not inclined to view his current job as a steppingstone. From Brian Giorgis at Marist to Rick Insell at Middle Tennessee, Curt Miller at Bowling Green and Jennifer Rizzotti at Hartford, the women's game is fortunate to have a number of its brightest coaches perfectly content to remain outside the BCS conferences. And while Graves doesn't like the mid-major label, he probably wouldn't mind sharing a sentence with peers like that.
"They've made it a destination," Graves said of Gonzaga's administration. "I get a good salary. It's not like I can move to another, let's say Pac-10, place and get a better salary. They really take care of me, they take care of my assistants. They give us what we need; they're dedicated to making it a destination. I think that's why Mark [Few] has stayed there for so long. He's had opportunities to leave, as well. And it's family -- it's a family place. It's a great place to raise kids."
And a great place to build a contending basketball team, which is why Graves and the Bulldogs won't be happy just to reach the Sweet 16. Whether the next game in Sacramento brings No. 3 Xavier or No. 6 Vanderbilt, the Bulldogs will enter on even footing.
Major, mid-major or something between, the indisputable label that fits is one of the last 16 teams standing.
"I'm just really thrilled for the team," Graves said. "I love this group -- and I know every coach says that, but there's just something really special about the chemistry we have. I think that they're winning partly on the fact they don't want to stop playing with each other. They just enjoy it. We want to continue to do more and go farther. I know they have big goals. I'm just happy as a coach that we're living to play another day."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.