Sunday, November 15, 2015

Toughing it out at Gonzaga

By Wally Mersereau

Spokane is a pleasant city of modest size that is the urban center of a large area of eastern Washington, northern Idaho and western Montana. Sadly, airline consolidation trends have made Spokane one of its victims. A decade ago air service to and from Spokane was far superior to what it is today. Non-stop flights now are mostly gone. From Bay Area airports a change of planes in Portland or Seattle is generally required, adding to travel time by Stanford fans attending road or NCAA regional games in the Lilac City.

Those who accept the challenge of getting to Spokane are rewarded with a pleasant experience and a relaxed pace. The Falls on the Spokane River are adjacent to downtown. The river is a tributary to the Columbia. Railroads were the primary cause of Spokane’s growth as a city. Today, Burlington Northern trains roll, seemingly continuously, east and west through the city center on a long viaduct, a constant reminder of why Spokane exists.

I flew in on Saturday afternoon to attend the 1 pm Sunday game at Gonzaga. On Saturday skies were overcast, the temperature was in the 50s, but there was no rain, allowing for some casual strolling and a fine dinner. I again stayed at the historic Davenport hotel.

Wayne Tinkle, father of Jos and Elle, grew up in Spokane, as did Bing Crosby. Crosby, the middle of seven children, probably is the most famous Gonzaga graduate. Elle is a senior on this season’s Gonzaga team.

The Gonzaga Bulldogs participate in the West Coast Conference along with Santa Clara and USF in the Bay Area, all three are Jesuit schools. Women’s basketball at Gonzaga became highly successful under head coach Kelly Graves. When Graves was hired away by Oregon, his top assistant, Lisa Fortier, took over the program and led her team to the NCAA tournament last season. Spokane strongly supports its Zags.

Sunday, the 6,000-seat McCarthy Athletic Center, called The MAC or The Kennel, was sold out, creating a potentially hostile environment for the visiting Stanford women. The best single game tickets available when they went on sale to the public were in Row 32, the very last row in the arena. There appeared to be only a handful of Stanford fans at this game.

As it turned out it was the Gonzaga women, not the crowd, that gave Stanford fits. It was a sloppy game until the last 5 minutes and touch and go until then as to whether the Cardinal could pull out a win.

At the end of the first quarter the score was 12-12. At the half it was 27-27. At the end of the third quarter it was 41-38 Stanford. In the fourth quarter the crowd, sensing a Bulldog win, came alive with Gonzaga up 1, 46-47. The crowd began clapping as if to carry its team home to victory and I began to lose hope.

I don’t know why it happened, but that was the high-water mark for the Zags. Somehow Stanford began to play the way it should have from the beginning. In the last 5 minutes the Cardinal outscored Gonzaga 19-1. 19-1!!! For the last 5 minutes of the 40-minute game Stanford dominated while the poor Bulldogs who had the crowd and themselves tasting an upset became unable to score. I have no idea why this occurred. But it sure quieted down the crowd. It stopped clapping, it stopped cheering and instead sat in stunned silence as the Stanford lead soared upward to a final score of 65-48. The final score was about what you would expect before the game began, but the 17-point winning margin all came in the final 5 minutes. This manner of playing is not good for the emotional stability of Stanford fans far from home.

I was drained, but happy when the game ended. The closeness of the game and the rising spirits of the crowd pointed to a Stanford loss as the clock ticked down, but when it seemed almost too late the team came through. Three consecutive 3-pointers by Lili and Karlie gave crucial momentum to the late Stanford run.

It would be nice if this team would start stronger and not wait so long to take command.

Alanna and Marta were troubled by fouls and played less than 10 minutes each. The playing load in this game was carried by Erica with 23 points in 35 minutes and Lili with 21 points in 29 minutes. Six players, Erica, Bri, Kaylee, Lili, Karlie and Brittany played 21 minutes or more. No other player was in the game for more than 9 minutes.

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