Commentary

Four months later, they meet again

West Coast guaranteed representative in Indy as Stanford, 11-seed Gonzaga clash

Originally Published: March 27, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

Katelan Redmon talks about what Gonzaga must do to top Stanford. More videos

SPOKANE, Wash. -- We've heard the refrain many years of the Left Coast feeling like the "Left-out" Coast when it comes to women's college basketball. This year, there will definitely be a West Coast entrant in the Women's Final Four. The question is, will it be the oh-so-familiar representative, Stanford -- the team that has carried the banner of the Pacific Time Zone in this sport for the past two decades? Or will it be an upstart, Gonzaga, that could make history in the women's bracket?

Stanford, the top seed in the Spokane Regional, is seeking its fourth consecutive trip to the Final Four, and 10th overall. Gonzaga, the (cough) No. 11 seed, is in the Elite Eight for the first time.

"For me, personally, it hasn't really hit me -- the extent of what we have done already this season," Gonzaga senior Janelle Bekkering said. "I just want to keep on playing."

Gonzaga is attempting to become the lowest seed to make the Women's Final Four; Arkansas, at No. 9 in 1998, holds that distinction. Sunday in the men's tournament, No. 11 VCU upset top-seeded Kansas … can Gonzaga do the same to Stanford on the women's side?

Of course, the Bulldogs have had a significant advantage: They've been at home in Spokane throughout the tournament, in their own gym for the early rounds and now at Spokane Arena, only about five minutes away from campus.

The reality of the women's game, which has predetermined sites for the early rounds, is that this can happen. There are only so many schools/facilities that bid to host postseason events. Gonzaga bid to host the early rounds, while Washington State is actually the host school for this regional.

Perhaps the committee tried to off-set the potential geographic advantage Gonzaga had by giving the Bulldogs such a low seed. Nobody who has watched them really thinks that seed is accurate, though, least of all the Cardinal players and coaches.

Stanford junior Nneka Ogwumike went so far as to suggest the Cardinal might be the underdog in the final.

"I wouldn't say we're even the favorite to win here," she said. "We're playing in Spokane. Gonzaga's here, they're a wonderful team, they're playing in their city."

If Gonzaga were to pull this upset, it would strike a blow not just for the West Coast Conference, but West Coast women's basketball as truly being something more than Stanford.

Southern California won two of the first three NCAA tournaments, in 1983 and '84. But that wasn't an indicator of long-term success for West Coast teams.

[+] EnlargeKatelan Redmon
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonCourtney Vandersloot has tallied 92 points and 31 assists in three NCAA tournament games.

Stanford is the last West Coast team to win the NCAA women's title, in 1992. In fact, Stanford is the only West Coast program that has even made it to the Women's Final Four since 1988, when Long Beach State went to the event in Tacoma, Wash.

The last time the Final Four was held in the Pacific Time Zone was 1999 in San Jose, Calif. -- when all the teams there were far from the West Coast: Purdue, Duke, Georgia and Louisiana Tech.

"We've had some great teams that were Final Four-caliber teams," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said of the West Coast's performance in the NCAA women's tournament. "Washington a couple of times. The USC teams with Lisa Leslie. UCLA with Maylana Martin. But they got to the Elite Eight, they were ready to go to the Final Four, and just never got over the hump."

Stanford had its own Final Four "drought," if you will, from going for the third consecutive time in 1997 to not making another trip until 2008. It was at the regional here in Spokane that the Cardinal ended that stretch, beating Pittsburgh and Maryland to make it to the '08 Final Four in Tampa, Fla.

Stanford senior starters Jeanette Pohlen and Kayla Pedersen will break the school record for games played (149) with Monday's contest. They recalled their first regional final three years ago, when the seniors, such as Candice Wiggins, were so thrilled to be going to the Final Four.

"I think something that was really special about that year was that everyone was just as excited as us," Pohlen said of being one of Stanford's freshmen then. "Because we hadn't gone that far in the tournament in such a long time."

Now, Pohlen and Pedersen have been to the Final Four three times, and appreciate the wide-eyed glee that rookies such as Chiney Ogwumike bring.

"Jeanette and I talk about it all the time," Pedersen said. "I think what's most exciting is seeing their faces. Like walking on a charter plane, and Chiney is just going crazy because it's so cool.

"Our freshmen experiencing that kind of makes us realize we shouldn't take anything for granted. We made it to the Elite Eight, and that's a huge accomplishment. But at the same time, we want to have our freshmen go a little bit further so they can experience that, too."

Gonzaga, though, would like to share the Final Four experience with this whole city. The game was nearly sold out as of Sunday afternoon, with only about 100 tickets left. When Stanford played Gonzaga at McCarthey Athletic Center here in November -- an 84-78 victory by the Cardinal -- it was a sellout of about 6,000. Monday's crowd at Spokane Arena will be larger and louder.

"It was tremendous to hear that crowd really screaming and getting behind us," Gonzaga's Kelly Bowen said of Saturday's semifinal victory over Louisville. "It was just an amazing feeling."

The fans here have been amazed by Gonzaga senior guard Courtney Vandersloot, who has 92 points and 31 assists in the Bulldogs' three NCAA tournament games thus far. She acknowledges that when she comes across highlights of herself on TV, she quickly changes the channel. Anything that could resemble self-congratulation makes her uncomfortable.

[+] EnlargeStanford/Gonzaga
James Snook/US PresswireStanford defeated Gonzaga 84-78 on Nov. 21.

"That's just not me," she said.

In high school in Kent, Wash., Vandersloot was a skinny kid who didn't play a whole lot of AAU basketball -- she spent time with soccer, too, growing up -- and most programs ignored or drastically underestimated her potential. Gonzaga didn't, and that ended up being the best fit for Vandersloot, anyway.

Meanwhile, Bulldogs junior Katelan Redmon of Spokane actually went west initially for college, spending a season at Washington in Seattle. This despite the fact that Gonzaga, where her grandfather Charles Redmon played college basketball, really wanted her.

Redmon acknowledged the lure of being in a "big" conference made her choose Washington, where she was on the Pac-10 all-freshman team along with Stanford's Pedersen in 2008.

But Redmon just wasn't happy at Washington, and called Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves when she decided to transfer.

"I said, 'I'm leaving UW, is there a spot open for me? I'd like to come back and play for you,'" Redmon said. "And it was like, 'Yes! We do have a spot! We'd love to have you.'"

Redmon will have quite a large group on hand Monday in her hometown, including her grandparents, parents -- dad Chuck is a basketball referee -- and her three siblings. Among them is twin brother, Kyle, whom she grew up competing against.

"We'd be out in the driveway playing one-on-one and going at it until somebody cried," Redmon said, laughing. "He's very supportive now. He made me tougher. He's always been bigger than me, too; he was eight pounds when we were born, and I was six pounds. But I came out first, so I beat him in that."

Indeed, sometimes the "little" one can triumph. Gonzaga thinks of itself as a "major" program, for good reason. But coming from outside the "big six" conferences, the Bulldogs would be the first such school to make the Women's Final Four since Missouri State did it in 2001. And the Lady Bears accomplished that out of the Spokane Regional. But guess what? They beat a West Coast team, Washington, in the regional final to do that.

The good news for the Left Coast this time is that whoever wins Monday here, the West will be represented in Indianapolis.

"It's unfortunate that it's going to be only one of us," VanDerveer said. "We're going to be really challenged by them. But I'm glad it's going to be a West Coast team that's going to the Final Four."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.