After two rounds of NCAA tournament play, Gonzaga University is likely the most exciting story, not only because they are making their first-ever trip to the Sweet Sixteen, but also because they have played in arguably the most exciting basketball games of anyone left in the field.
A day after Gonzaga's 82-76 victory over the University of North Carolina, coach Kelly Graves said, "If I wasn't the coach and down there sweating all last night -- if I was just a fan -- I would've really appreciated that game. I thought it was a well played basketball game at a high pace and just a high level. Hopefully, that's the kind of game that we'll see tomorrow for both teams -- I anticipate it will be another track meet."
Texas A&M coach Gary Blair - who Graves called, "the master of hyperbole" -- was a bit more confident about what their game would look like.
"You will have a high scoring ball game tomorrow just like the North Carolina game," said Blair. "I don't think either one of us can shut the other one down."
Ultimately, Texas A&M shut themselves down in the first half, shooting poorly and turning the ball over 13 times.
Nevertheless, Gonzaga's thrilling 72-71 victory over Texas A&M Monday night was just as exciting as the coaches predicted, although nobody would have guessed that Gonzaga would win with star point guard Courtney Vandersloot committing 11 turnovers.
"By far this is the hardest second-round game that we’ve had to play since I’ve been in the NCAAs," said Blair. "They executed, we didn’t guard very well the first 20 minutes and then we put the pressure on them after the half. Then they started turning the ball over. As a result Vandersloot had an uncharacteristic game of six assists and 11 turnovers. But we were turning it over ourselves. It was a hard fought ball game, the crowd was into it and it was just a great atmosphere. Hopefully the television cameras didn’t start going from game to game to game because the game of the night was right here."
Kevin Pelton tweeted it was among the best basketball games he'd seen at Hec Ed all year.
Steve from the Women's Hoops Blog said it might have been the best women's college basketball game of the year.
Given all of that, for Matt Zemek to tweet that it was "a terrific advertisement for women's basketball" seems more than justified.
Graham Hays elaborated on the broader significance of this upset for women's college basketball, beyond David beating Goliath -- Gonzaga's transition from "mid-major" to major competition status.
Mid-major? Gonzaga Bulldogs pull major women's NCAA tournament upset - ESPN
The biggest upset of the tournament's first three days, seventh-seeded Gonzaga's 72-71 victory against No. 2 seed Texas A&M, might represent something more than a big win for the little guys. Instead, it's the culmination of a different story, one Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves has been working on for a decade. Beating North Carolina and Texas A&M to reach the Sweet 16 might mark the rise of the game's newest major.
For all of the talk about the lack of parity in women's college basketball and this tournament ultimately being the "UConn invitational", the fact that teams like Gonzaga and 11th-seeded San Diego State University have cracked the Sweet Sixteen says that the game is in fact growing and that there is more talent outside of Storrs than critics think.
Perhaps the personification of the "growing talent among lesser knowns" narrative is the performance of Vivian Frieson against Texas A&M. Chances are that you've already heard about her game winning shot, but it was the entirety of her performance prior to that and throughout the season that makes her so impressive.
When asked on Friday if there was a player on his team who does not receive the national attention she deserved, Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves quickly noted the versatile Frieson as a player who is able to provide the team with whatever they need on a given night.
Playing with the current West Coast Conference Player of the Year and Wade Trophy candidate Courtney Vandersloot as well as former WCC Player of the Year and WNBA prospect Heather Bowman, it's obvious why Frieson hasn't gotten much attention. Then in Monday night's game, there was the added shadow of Texas A&M wing and WNBA prospect Tanisha Smith.
Yet Frieson managed to outshine them all, even without the last shot.
She was likely left off of the WNBA's list of prospects because at 6'0" she's undersized even for Division I basketball, but if she's not on the WNBA radar now, she should be.
And it's hard to imagine that she won't be whenever the season ends for her.
In a year in which UConn has been dominant thus leading people to say women's college basketball lacks parity, that a relative unknown led a "mid-major" to the Sweet 16 for the first time is a credit to the game.
Statistically, Frieson was responsible for nearly 45% of Gonzaga's last night, which more than made up for the fact that Vandersloot was a non-factor. How impressive is that? Over the course of the season, Frieson and Vandersloot combined for 40.9% of the team's total production. So essentially, Frieson picked up Vandersloot's slack plus a little extra. That's quite remarkable, not only in terms of talent, but also the mentality that enables one to shoulder so much of the burden for their team once their leader is rendered irrelevant.
So if she didn't do that during the season, could it be that this was just a one-off thing? A senior on an adrenaline rush who simply didn't want to go home? Possibly, but the thing is that she put up big performances against strong, but very different post players, in consecutive games.
Against North Carolina's tall and athletic front line, Frieson came up with a double-double in addition to 3 blocks and 3 assists. She had an outstanding defensive rebounding rate of 27%, impressive given most of UNC's posts had 4-5 inches on her. Monday night against TAMU, she had 23 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 blocks, and 3 steals. While the rebounding percentage wasn't quite as good, she had a very good free throw rate of 57.14% and an assist rate of 20.39%.
Although her passing numbers aren't quite that of even an average point guard, she showed that she can be quite an adept ball handler and passer, both making entry passes from the wing and executing the high-low from the top of the key. At no time was coach Graves' faith in her ballhandling ability more evident than the Texas A&M game when she was the lead handling the ball from the point at times with Vandersloot out, most notably receiving the inbounds pass on the team's final possession that led to her double-pump, fade away, game-winning shot.
What makes her impressive as a WNBA prospect is that in having multiple skills to offer and lead her college team, she could find a place in the pro game. That she has the capacity to literally take over a game against top competition when the stakes are high speaks volumes about her ability as a player. Would she be as impressive in the WNBA as she was this past weekend? Likely not -- she'd likely be a role player that brings energy and a multitude of skills to a team off the bench, at least to start her career. However, if you look at the role a player like Le'Coe Willingham played for the Mercury last year -- running the floor, getting scoring opportunities in transition -- there's no reason to believe Frieson couldn't give that to a team. That's to say nothing of her defensive effort that results not only in the blocked shots that show up in the box score, but also changing a number of other shots.
She's a legitimate player and -- given that most teams consider this draft thin -- worth a look at least in training camp. She's clearly a player that can find ways to help teams win and that has to mean something at the professional level.
The bottom line of what Frieson's performance represents is this: there is more talent in women's college basketball than most people commonly assume. Yes, UConn has by far the highest concentration of talent in the nation, but perhaps the greatest credit to the game is that players like Frieson are able to step up and dominate tournament games in which the stars didn't shine so brightly.