Before coming to Spokane I told a friend that the games here would show whether #1-seed Stanford has enough fortitude and composure to earn another trip to the Final Four. I guess that's what it took to win the Saturday game over #5-seed North Carolina, but the composure of the 300 or so Stanford fans present was entirely gone by the end of the tension-filled, emotionally draining game. As I walked to my car in the post-game drizzle I could hear Tara's TV interview over the outside p.a. system at the Spokane Arena. She was excited and happy. I was wrung out.
But let me start at the beginning.
There were long lines at the arena doors and will call windows when I arrived. It took me a while to find the Stanford will call window where there was no line and my ticket was quickly produced. The Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena was virtually full and the game was reported as being a sell-out. The official attendance was announced as 11,339. 95% of that number were Gonzaga fans. All of the arena was used, including the upper section that reaches to the roof. There were very few North Carolina fans present--not more than 50 by my estimate.
In the first game #11-seed Gonzaga had a 35-24 half-time lead over #7-seed Louisville. The Bulldogs generally played with more maturity and poise than the Cardinals. Courtney Vandersloot was outstanding for the Zags with 27 final points to Shoni Shimmel's 18. Five minutes into the second half Gonzaga had increased its lead to 20 points and looked as if it would just keep pulling ahead. But Louisville somehow began to slowly claw back and Shoni, who had only 2 points at half-time, began to score repeatedly. With 3 minutes left in the game, Louisville had pulled to within 3 points--a miraculous comeback. But Shoni and her teammates could not progress further. After Gonzaga made a number of game-ending free throws the final score was 76-69 with the grossly under-seeded Zags deservedly making it to the Elite Eight and a rematch with Stanford on Monday.
Tara, Kate and Bobbie watched the first game from mid-court seats. Tara and Bobbie left with 10 minutes remaining, but Kate stayed for the entire game, indicating she was the primary scout.
And then came the Stanford-North Carolina game. I had wondered what the Tar Heel mascot would turn out to be. It was a strange-looking goat with curved yellow horns and a somewhat mouse-like face. The mascot was not impressive in appearance or performance. But the North Carolina players were most impressive and generally stuck like tar, answering Stanford basket after basket for the entire game.
The first half was close with the teams exchanging narrow leads. The game was mostly tied during the final 6 minutes of the first half until Stanford managed to end up by 4 with a score of 39-35. Better than the last UCLA game, but providing no level of comfort. The game was not pretty and no Stanford players really stood out. Most of the Gonzaga fans stayed for the start of the Stanford game, but a lot of them left at the half.
The second half was similarly close. Stanford led for the most part, but only by two to four points. The Tar Heels lived up to their sticky nickname and just would not go away. Italee Lucas was the stand-out player for North Carolina. She is only 5'8', but Stanford could not stop her from scoring in an assortment of ways. It basically was a two-point game for the final 10 minutes. And then those wonderful Ogwumike sisters came through, scoring 12 crucial points between them as the clock ran down. There was less than a minute to play before Chiney increased the lead to 4 points and for the first time North Carolina did not answer back. Jeanette missed all but one of her shots from the field during the course of the game, but she fortunately was the player the Tar Heels fouled in desperation and Jeanette was able to put the game beyond reach with her free throws in the last 30 seconds.
Nneka was again high scorer for Stanford with 19 points, followed by Chiney with 16 and I think Kayla with 14. Kayla again played the entire game and did everything.
And so the Elite Eight game of the Spokane region is set for Monday: Stanford vs. momentum-propelled local favorite Gonzaga. The arena will again be packed with more than 11,000 Gonzaga fans and they will be loud. The exhausted Stanford fans in Spokane will have two days to pull themselves together and get braced for what probably will be another epic contest.