SPOKANE, Wash. — Gonzaga’s surprising postseason journey, led by it’s spunky point guard, has at least one more chapter to go – this one with a trip to the Final Four on the line.
Courtney Vandersloot did a little of everything again, scoring 29 points, handing out seven assists and getting seven steals, and 11th-seeded Gonzaga advanced to the Elite Eight for the first time in school history with a 76-69 win against Louisville on Saturday night.
Playing less than two miles from their campus, the Bulldogs (31-4) sent the blood pressure rising for the 10,000 or so hometown fans in attendance after nearly squandering all of a 20-point second half lead.
But the Bulldogs made just enough plays in the final four minutes to hold off Louisville’s furious late charge. The Bulldogs will face either top-seeded Stanford or No. 5 seed North Carolina in the regional final on Monday night.
Gonzaga is the lowest seed to ever advance to a regional final in the history of the women’s tournament and has the chance to be first school from outside the six major conferences to reach the Final Four since Jackie Stiles led Southwest Missouri State – now Missouri State – to the national semifinals in 2001.
And Stiles did it by winning a regional held in Spokane.
Janelle Bekkering came up big in the closing minutes for Gonzaga with eight of her 15 points, including a baseline drive with 4:01 left that broke a nearly five-minute scoreless streak for the Bulldogs. Kelly Bowen added 12 and Katelan Redmon scored 10 for the Bulldogs, who have now won 21 consecutive games.
Shoni Schimmel led seventh-seeded Louisville (22-13) with 18 points, but didn’t find her shot until midway through the second half, missing 12 of her first 13 attempts. Keshia Hines scored a season-high 17, but the Cardinals got just five minutes out of leading scorer Monique Reid, who suffered a right groin strain in the first 90 seconds of the game. She briefly returned in the second half and missed the only shot she took, finishing with two points.
As great as Schimmel was in getting Louisville to the regional semifinals with 33 points in an upset of No. 2 seed Xavier, the freshman point guard endured the struggles of a freshman for the first 30 minutes against the Zags. She made 8 of 23 shots overall, and 2 of 10 on 3-point attempts.
Vandersloot added another mark to her stellar career, setting an NCAA record for assists in a single season when she found Bowen for a three-point play less than two minutes into the second half. It was part of a 16-7 Bulldogs’ spurt that pushed their lead to 51-31.
Louisville and Schimmel then got started. The freshman hit a pair of deep 3-pointers along with a floater in the lane. Her 3 with 9:08 left pulled the Cardinals within 59-48, and moments later the Gonzaga lead was down to seven with 5:35 left after Schimmel scored a pair of fastbreak baskets.
Hines scored six in a row on the inside, getting the Cardinals within three, the closest they’d been since it was 21-19. Bekkering broke a nearly five-minute scoring drought for Gonzaga with a baseline drive, Kayla Standish added a jumper and free throws from Bowen and Bekkering pushed the lead back to seven.
Vandersloot, who had had seven turnovers, hit a trio of free throws in the final 20 seconds, her first points in more than nine minutes. The Bulldogs outscored Louisville 24-5 at the line.
Early on, Louisville decided they weren’t going to sprint up and down the floor with Gonzaga, doing what Iowa and UCLA did not in the first two rounds against the top scoring team in the country. The Cardinals worked the shot clock on the offensive end trying to limit the Bulldogs’ possessions.
It worked only briefly and by the second half, Louisville was in a race trying to catch up, only to come up short in the end.