- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Gonzaga senior guard Courtney Vandersloolt talks about the Bulldogs' run to the NCAA Sweet 16 and how she has learned to be more of a scoring point guard.
SPOKANE, Wash. -- Gonzaga's Courtney Vandersloot had asked her parents to get her a dog for about as far back as she could remember.
"It was on every single Christmas list," Vandersloot said.
She got other presents instead, but the desire for a dog never went away. Which is why when puppy love struck with full force before her senior season, Vandersloot was powerless against it.
"I would always go to the pet store to look at dogs," she said, "and then I saw Romeo."
Vandersloot and the coal-black pug/chihuahua mix locked eyes. She was a goner. Still, she slept on it one night and went back the next day to become Romeo's best friend. And vice versa.
"It was probably my 10th time in there to look at puppies, because I love them," Vandersloot said. "And he just had those eyes we connected. Love at first sight. He's a little cuddlebug. He is kind of scared and shy around people at first, but once he gets to know you, he's really, really friendly. He gets along with all dogs. He's really easygoing, fun."
Hmmm, sounds a lot like Vandersloot herself.
"Yeah, it is," she said, laughing, in regard to how a naturally shy kid from Kent, Wash., has adjusted to being in the limelight in her sport. "The attention was a little overwhelming at first. Talking with strangers initially was a challenge for me. I think people still can tell I'm not completely comfortable around people I don't know.
"But I've gotten used to it. I really do love meeting new people. They just kind of have to take control of the conversation at first."
Fair enough, since Vandersloot is so adept at taking control on the basketball court. The 5-foot-8 guard has been the star of the NCAA tournament thus far, combining for 63 points and 24 assists in the No. 11 seed Bulldogs' victories over sixth-seeded Iowa and No. 3 seed UCLA. During the victory over the Bruins, she passed the scoring milestone that made her the first men's or women's Division I player to top 2,000 points and 1,000 assists.
On Saturday, the Bulldogs face No. 7 seed Louisville in the regional semifinals here. Yes, there will be grumbling about Gonzaga, under the predetermined sites system, getting to play in its home gym for the early rounds and then in Spokane Arena for the regional semifinals -- and potentially the final, if the Bulldogs defeat the Cardinals.
The selection committee members put themselves in this stew by giving Gonzaga an 11 seed, which the Bulldogs have proved was too low. But whatever the complaints about seeding and location, it's also important to look on the bright side: Thanks to Vandersloot and the Bulldogs, this city is excited about the event and the arena might well be sold out for Saturday's semifinals.
In 2001, Spokane Arena had a nice-sized crowd to watch another 5-8 guard phenomenon from a so-called mid-major program. Jackie Stiles and No. 5 seed Missouri State knocked off top-seeded Duke in the semifinals, then No. 6 Washington to earn a trip to the Final Four in St. Louis.
Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves was in attendance to watch that regional; that was his first season with the Bulldogs. All this season as motivation, he has told his players about how a 5-8 guard with a huge heart and tireless work ethic helped her team make the Final Four out of the Spokane Regional that year.
"We've heard it enough times now that we can repeat the story," Gonzaga senior Janelle Bekkering said.
But these Gonzaga players were young kids then, most of them not really watching basketball yet. They don't actually know how electrifying it felt to see Stiles play or how wildly popular she was in southwest Missouri and her home state of Kansas. How that one night against Duke, in particular, encapsulated her unfortunately brief but brilliant basketball career. How for those who did watch it, the memory of Stiles in Spokane has a natural connection to what Vandersloot is doing in this tournament.
"She's like Stiles was; she's a folk hero," said Tara VanDerveer, coach of Spokane No. 1 seed Stanford. "As a coach, what I loved about Jackie is that she was such a hard worker. She maximized her ability. The challenge is to, within your four years, be the best you can be. Stiles was the epitome of that. I feel like Vandersloot has done that, too."
Stiles made lasting impression
Thursday night, around 10 o'clock, Stiles called during a stop on her drive home to Springfield, Mo., from St. Joseph, where she had been putting on a clinic affiliated with the Division II women's hoops national championship.
"About 150 kids, and I had them by myself," Stiles said. "Whew."
That will wear you out, but Stiles is used to it. She travels the country giving clinics and motivational speeches. Not that long ago, she was speaking at Treasure Valley Community College in Ontario, Ore.
"I flew to Boise, Idaho, then drove there," Stiles said. "And I was thinking, 'How did I get out here? Why did they contact me?'
"Every year they do something about women's history, and this year it was women in sports. And I found out the guy who was in charge of bringing me out there said that he knew instantly who he wanted. Because 10 years ago, his girlfriend had asked him to go to Spokane and watch the women's tournament with her. He said sure, but he'd never seen a women's game before. And he told me he'll never forget that Duke game."
It had been 10 years ago this very night: March 24, 2001. Stiles scored 41 points as No. 5 seed Missouri State upset No. 1 seed Duke 81-71 in the regional semifinals. It was televised on a Saturday evening, when the men's NCAA action was pretty much over for the day. So a lot of people who might not have witnessed Stiles before saw her array of dribble drives through traffic, pull-up jumpers and 3-pointers. And they were blown away.
Even Roy Williams, then still Kansas' men's coach, saw some of the game and took time in a subsequent news conference to praise the Sunflower State native Stiles.
Missouri State then beat Washington in the regional championship game, and headed home to Missouri and the Final Four.
"I remember thinking back then I didn't want to have any regrets whatsoever," Stiles said of the 2001 regional. "I thought, 'I can handle not making it to the Final Four if I know I gave it everything I had.' So that was the mindset. But we truly believed we could make the Final Four, even though no one else really thought we could."
Texas' Gail Goestenkors, then Duke's coach, had an outstanding freshman that season in Alana Beard and what she thought was an "exceptional" game plan she and her staff had developed against Missouri State.
"Which is not something I would often say, but it was really good," Goestenkors said. "We were switching screens; we had very long, athletic defenders. And we thought if we could switch screens any time Jackie was coming to the basket and deny her the ball, we could slow her. But she did such a great job making reads, she sliced us up. And her teammates were good, too; they did just enough to keep us from doing what we wanted to.
"So then we changed up our defense and stayed home. We said, 'OK, we're not going to switch because they're making us pay.' And then she just started curling off screens as well. I think she's probably the best player I've ever seen in terms of taking advantage of whatever the defense does."
By that time, though, Stiles was a senior who'd had a ton of practice at reacting to anything defensively thrown at Missouri State. And she had total confidence that then-coach Cheryl Burnett would prepare her for it.
Earlier that March, Stiles had set the NCAA career scoring record for Division I women's basketball in front of her home crowd in Springfield. The only thing that ended up stopping Stiles that season -- in which she scored 1,062 points for a career total of 3,393 -- was sheer exhaustion, which Purdue took advantage of in defeating Missouri State in the national semifinals.
Asked what advice she'd give Vandersloot in dealing with this time in her career, Stiles said, "You just have to focus so much on what it takes to win. I didn't read any newspapers or watch the news; that way you don't realize how crazy it is until afterward. Then you can look back at all the articles and things."
Stiles was the WNBA rookie of the year in 2001, but her playing career was already near its end. An avalanche of injuries piled up on Stiles, who underwent numerous surgeries and spent years trying to recover enough to be able to resume playing. But she never really could.
Stiles now does personal training along with her clinics and speeches; she is still in great shape. She only occasionally sits down to watch basketball, and usually not full games. She did really enjoy seeing a fellow scorer in BYU's Jimmer Fredette, and she plans on catching up with Vandersloot and the Bulldogs on television Saturday (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET).
It has been very hard for Stiles -- harder even than you might imagine -- to not have been able to keep playing at a competitive level. But still, she holds that NCAA scoring record. And nobody who saw Stiles in the 2001 NCAA tournament will ever forget that postseason run.
"I think my competitiveness just took over," Stiles said. "I didn't want my career as a Lady Bear to end, and I wanted to give the fans something special. Looking back on the experience, what I really remember most is the people involved, the fans. I wanted to give them something to be proud of and to cheer for."
Vandersloot and her teammates are just too young to have been paying attention then. And the fact that Stiles didn't have a lengthy WNBA career to keep her in the spotlight means she is someone they know only by name, if at all.
But as VanDerveer said, the similarities between Vandersloot and Stiles are striking. Not so much in what type of basketball players they are: Vandersloot is a consummate point guard with a pass-first mentality and had to be coaxed into scoring more in college. Stiles was the proverbial scoring machine.
The ways they are alike, though, are in their work ethic, their devotion to their teammates, their self-deprecating humility.
"I've learned so much since I got here," Vandersloot said. "Now I look back, and I can't believe that I could play at much of a level not knowing what I know now. It's weird to think how much I didn't know, and all that I've learned from my coaches and fellow players."
Louisville coach Jeff Walz, who has a budding star of his own in Shoni Schimmel, said he expects the matchup with Gonzaga to be high-scoring and fast-paced. Gonzaga is averaging 86.3 points per game, with Vandersloot leading the way at 19.4. She also has 351 assists to 111 turnovers.
"Her best quality? She has so many of them," teammate Katelan Redmon said. "But I think it's that great court vision. She can be coming down and not once look at you, but the next thing you know, that ball's in your hands. And you're like, 'How did she even see I was open?' She also knows when she needs to shoot it. She has that perfect consistency."
Stanford faced Gonzaga in Spokane on Nov. 21, an 84-78 victory by the Cardinal. Vandersloot had 24 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds. Gonzaga first must get past Louisville, and Stanford has to beat North Carolina. But if the Cardinal and Bulldogs do meet again, the game might be just as close, if not closer, than the contest near the start of this season. Like Stiles, Vandersloot might get a chance to orchestrate a win over a No. 1 seed in Spokane Arena.
"She's surrounded by some good shooters," VanDerveer said, referencing the likes of Kayla Standish, who has scored 60 points combined over the past two games. "Her assists are a combination of her excellent vision and passing, but those other kids can play, too. She's not giving it to a bunch of chumps. They have several really talented players."
Missouri State did, too, and Stiles always wants to remind people how good her teammates were. It was something very precious they all got to share together, magical March moments in which one tremendous senior led a group effort. Just as Vandersloot is doing now.
"Wish her luck," Stiles said. "And tell her I'll be watching."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
Courtney Vandersloot is a 5-foot-8 guard with a huge heart and tireless work ethic who led her team to the Spokane Regional. Now that sounds like a familiar storyline.