Saturday, March 21, 2009

Gonzaga Pulls Day 1's Biggest Upset

How's your bracket looking midway through the first round of the tournament? I went 13 for 16 on the first day. One of those three misses came in the game I attended at Bank of America Arena at Hec Edmundson Pavilion - 12 seed Gonzaga taking down fifth-seeded Xavier in front of a partisan crowd. In hindsight, I underestimated the energy the underdog Zags would draw from their fans.

As expected, 6-6 Xavier center Ta'Shia Phillips dominated the paint against a Gonzaga team with no player taller than 6-2. Phillips finished with 26 points and 18 rebounds, 10 of them on the offensive end. Alas, she had a lot of chances for putbacks because her teammates shot a combined 13-of-55 (23.6 percent) from the field.

Meanwhile, the Zags were led by their talented inside-out duo of point guard Courtney Vandersloot and post Heather Bowman. Vandersloot controlled the tempo and efficiently ran the team, handing out 11 assists against three turnovers in 38 minutes. Bowen battled Phillips at one end and found multiple ways to score at the other, finishing with 23 points. Vivian Frieson (17 points) relieved pressure when the Musketeers sold out defensively against Vandersloot and Bowman. I was also very impressed by the coaching of Kelly Graves, who kept his team calm as Xavier rallied in the second half and drew up some great plays out of timeouts.

Now Gonzaga, which won its first NCAA Tournament game ever in its second appearance, can legitimately aspire to reach the Sweet 16 by winning Monday's matchup with Pitt, which beat Montana 64-35 in the first game of Saturday's Hec Ed double-header. To do that, the Zags will have to find a way to slow down Panthers star Shavonte Zellous, who scored 31 points and grabbed nine rebounds in the win.

Once again, Gonzaga will have a home-court advantage of sorts. It's possible the crowd may be filled with even more Bulldogs supporters, since today fans had to divide their attention between the Gonzaga women and the men, who advanced to the Sweet 16 with a buzzer-beater against Western Kentucky just as the women were tipping off. Pitt-Gonzaga, which will air on ESPN2, tips off at 6:30 p.m. Monday.

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