All Signs Point to a Return to Vegas;
Zags' Men, Women Bound for Big Dance
(Editor’s note: The Gonzaga women’s team is scheduled to land at Spokane International Airport today [Tuesday] at noon on an Alaska flight. The Gonzaga men are scheduled to land at Spokane International aboard a charter flight which docks at SN Air, across the runway from the main terminal, at 7:30 p.m. today [Tuesday].)
By Dale Goodwin
LAS VEGAS (Tuesday, March 10) -- Gonzaga alumnus and longtime basketball fan Phil Thompson wouldn’t be here if it weren't to see his Bulldog men’s and women’s teams compete in the West Coast Conference Basketball tournaments. “But it is kind of fun to see all this glitzy stuff,” he said Monday while watching the Gonzaga women’s team capture the WCC Tournament title with a 66-55 win over San Diego and earn only its second berth into the NCAA Division I Championship Tournament. Later in the evening he saw the nationally 12th-ranked Gonzaga men defeat Saint Mary’s 83-58 to earn their 11th-straight trip to the Big Dance.
“But the atmosphere here around the tournament within the host (Orleans) hotel between the Gonzaga fans and the fans from other teams, is very nice,” Thompson said.
Attendance for the women’s title contest was a single-session record 3,190 fans, and it appeared at least 80 percent were Gonzaga fans. Same for the men’s title contest viewed by 7,845. The tournament attendance of 28,131 eclipsed the previous record of 22,238, which was set in 2006 in Spokane when Gonzaga hosted its only WCC tournament.
“This tournament has brought together a lot of people who think highly of Gonzaga,” Thompson said. “I’ve seen people here I haven’t seen in 10 years.”
Part of that is the fact that there are almost 8,000 seats for basketball in the host Orleans Arena, and every seat was sold.
“The only surprise for me,” said WCC Commissioner Jamie Zaninovich, “is that tickets sold so fast. We thought if we had a crowd of 5,000 for our first tournament here on a neutral site, that’d be good. I think everyone has enjoyed being in a place like Las Vegas where there is great energy, and that energy has been brought to our event.”
“I like being here on a neutral court,” said Gonzaga grad and longtime fan Tom Fuchs. “Now we can compare apples to apples in terms of fan support. And it’s clear Gonzaga fans top the league.”
Zaninovich is completing his first year as commissioner, and he couldn’t be happier with this venue. “We’ve really tried to make this more than just a basketball event. We inducted our first class into the WCC Hall of Fame last night (Gonzaga’s Frank Burgess among the eight inductees). The league’s history is important. Our schools have come together to donate over 5,000 pairs of shoes that will be shipped internationally to people who need them most. We invited a bunch of children from Las Vegas to attend our women’s championship game today. And the basketball has been great.”
Zaninovich said the league has signed a four-year contract with The Orleans Hotel and Arena, but has a grace period each year to renew for the following year. “I will meet with the executive committee and our presidents the end of March, and we expect to make a decision about next year’s tournament by mid-to-late spring.”
Of course, all signs appear positive for returning to this venue in 2010.
“Everyone at the hotel has been very accommodating and friendly,” Thompson said. “And the price of rooms is more reasonable than we’ve had at any of the host school sites.”
“Of course, the hotel offers so many options for people,” Zaninovich added, “from bowling to movies to a variety of restaurants and easy access to the arena.”
A fan driving to this event would be pleasantly surprised to find easy, close and free parking at The Arena because so many fans are staying onsite and walking to the games.
MEN MAKE CONVINCING CASE FOR NCAA SEEDING
Gonzaga men have won 18 of 19 games in 2009, including two impressive wins in this tournament. Gonzaga was led in the WCC championship game by Micah Downs, who earned tournament MVP honors with 12 points and 12 rebounds to go with 18 points in the semifinals. Josh Heytvelt added 17 points and 6 rebounds. Matt Bouldin (14 points) and Jeremy Pargo (10 points) joined Downs on the all-tournament team.
Gonzaga held Saint Mary’s to 29 percent shooting from the field, while the Zags shot 55 percent.
“We played as perfect as we could at both ends of the court tonight,” said Coach Mark Few. “It was an incredible performance and incredible weekend for our group. I’m happy for the guys.”
ZAGS EARN WOMEN’S CHAMPIONSHIP
Sophomore point guard Courtney Vandersloot scored 10 points, dished out 10 assists and stole 3 on her way to earning the tournament’s MVP Award. She was joined on the all-tournament team by teammates Heather Bowman (16 points) and Janelle Bekkering (14 points, 10 rebounds). Freshman Kelly Bowen added 15 points, and Vivian Friesen had 11 for the Zags.
“I love to dance,” Bowman said responding to a question about returning to the NCAA Tournament. “We really came together after losing to Pepperdine in league. We knew we had the heart to do this.”
Coach Kelly Graves was particularly elated for his one scholarshipped senior, Jami Schaefer. “It all starts with Jami. She might be the best leader I’ve ever coached. I think our tournament game with San Diego last year (a GU loss on San Diego’s home court) set the tone for this group. This is a special group of players, and each one is a wonderful young woman with great character.”