Spotlight lingers on Zags' Frieson
Gonzaga junior hit game-winning shot to clinch Bulldogs their first Sweet 16 berth
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- With 17 seconds remaining in the second-round NCAA tournament game against Texas A&M, Gonzaga forward Vivian Frieson became an overnight women's basketball sensation.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Elaine ThompsonVivian Frieson ranks third on Gonzaga in scoring at 12.6 ppg but first in rebounds at 7.5 per game.
Her shot in the waning seconds against the second-seeded Aggies gave the Bulldogs a 72-71 win and their first Sweet 16 berth in school history.
"I've tried to come down [from the emotion of the shot], but it's a little hard because everywhere I go I've been asked, 'Oh, that was a great shot, did you think it was going to go in?'" Frieson said during Friday's news conference at Arco Arena. "People around us -- Spokane definitely -- people have been asking about it. They're really congratulatory. So, yeah, I think I've definitely tried to come down. In the end, it's just one shot and we're here to get more wins. We don't want that to be the highlight of this. We've got a couple more wins in us, I think."
The newfound celebrity status has been a different experience for the senior who has often been overshadowed by All-West Coast Conference teammates Heather Bowman and Courtney Vandersloot.
Frieson has made her career doing all the things the Bulldogs need at all the key times. She's not flashy, but she is productive and she's the reason why Gonzaga is continuing to rewrite its history books.
"I'm not the pure scorer that Heather is, but I do have those times when I can step up and score," Frieson said. "I'm not the pure passer than Courtney is, but there are times when I can draw the defense in and make a decent pass. I'm not the best defender but I can defend most people. So, I think being versatile is something that I've prided myself on because it's gotten me where I am today. And I think me being able to do that helps the team get to where we are also."
Vivian [Frieson] is a smart enough player to realize what we need at a given time. If you look at the big games we've played, she always seems to put up big numbers in those games. She's a really cerebral player. I don't think I've ever coached somebody really with her intelligence on the court. She's a coach's dream.” -- Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves
Frieson's do-everything attitude was developed as a child growing up in Bremerton, Wash. She followed her brothers around and helped raise her little sister while her mother worked to support the family. Frieson's dad, Tyrone, was incarcerated most of her life. She first met him when she was 16 and he was out of jail, but Frieson said Tyrone, who lives in Toledo, never wanted much of a relationship with her.
A part of her thought basketball would be a way for them to bond, but he has never seen her play, even though the Bulldogs played at Marquette, just a short drive from where her father lives.
"We don't really have that great of a relationship," Frieson said. "When I was younger it was something that I really wanted, but it just didn't happen. We were on different pages, I guess. As an adult now, I feel like all the effort shouldn't be on me. As a child the effort shouldn't have all been on me as well. Now I feel like he's more of a fan. He'll write on my Facebook wall, 'Oh, good game.' Or that type of thing when he could really be calling and talking to me.
"When he couldn't come to Marquette or when we played in Pennsylvania, just like a six-hour drive, I think for me that was one of the turning points where I was done trying to be his daughter."
That tumultuous relationship made her want to be better at her craft. Initially, she wanted to be the best to impress a man she had never met, but still adored. But in time, she wanted to be the best for herself and ultimately her teammates.
She picked up basketball from some neighbors at 7 years old (abandoning a budding tetherball career, which she still laments), and as she got older and more skilled, she started honing her abilities in pickup games in the park. Those contests were almost exclusively against boys who were twice as fast and strong, but she held her own blocking shots, hitting jumpers, stealing passes and putting a lid on any male bravado.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Elaine ThompsonGonzaga coach Kelly Graves says Vivian Frieson is mature beyond her years and is a coach's dream.
As they played harder to avoid getting beaten by a girl, she played harder to avoid being bested by a boy.
That desire to not get beaten was seen in the final seconds against Texas A&M.
At no point in those final seconds did Frieson look to pass. She made a delay move on Aggies guard Sydney Carter at the top of the 3-point arc and then drove the ball past her, freeing up some space with a shoulder bump before rising for a 12-foot jumper.
It was fearless. The same type of fearlessness that allowed her to play with the boys in the schoolyard, that allowed her to move on without her father, that allowed her to put the Bulldogs on her back and carry them into the Sweet 16 against Xavier on Saturday (ESPN2, ESPN360.com, 11:30 p.m. ET).
"Vivian is a smart enough player to realize what we need at a given time," Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves said. "If you look at the big games we've played, she always seems to put up big numbers in those games. She's a really cerebral player. I don't think I've ever coached somebody really with her intelligence on the court.
"She's a coach's dream and to think of where she's come from -- first in her family to graduate college and her dad in prison. She just grew up where she had to be mature above her years and I think that has really paid off as a basketball player. I'm thankful every day that that's how Vivian is."
Graham Watson covers college football for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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