From exciting to excruciating
SPOKANE, Wash. -- Who knew it was possible to go from something so exciting to something so excruciating in the course of a couple of hours?
Opposite ends of the basketball spectrum played out in the NCAA regional semifinals on Saturday at Spokane Arena, but, really, it works out all in the name of a very intriguing matchup on Monday night in the Elite Eight.
It was magical, deafening bliss for Gonzaga in the moments after the Bulldogs earned their first-ever trip to the Elite Eight with a dramatic 76-69 win over Louisville. It was a game in which the hometown-girls-made-good led by 20, saw that lead shrink to three late into the second half and then held on for not only their own benefit, but the benefit of the 10,000 or so locals (including NBA legend John Stockton) who now want to see them slay the giant and become the lowest seed ever to reach the Final Four.
The giant, in this case, will be top-seeded Stanford, who almost laid a giant egg. The Cardinal rallied with seven straight points in the final 1:57 to pull out a 72-67 win over No. 5 seed North Carolina in the nightcap. It was not a particularly pretty way for the mighty Cardinal to advance, and if the energy started to leave the arena when the Gonzaga fans started to clear the building, the life was nearly sucked out of it by a grind-it-out game in which one of the nation's best teams was far from its best.
The Cardinal struggled to shoot from the perimeter (Stanford guards combined to shoot 4-for-22) and the squad was out-rebounded for only the second time this season. But they still managed to win, thanks to limited turnovers and the heroics of the Ogwumike sisters, who combined for 35 points and 14 rebounds.
"This was a classic survive and move on," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "We had a lot of people struggling tonight, and some of that was us and some of that was them. But we had to play really well and make plays down the stretch."
Now she has to hope for better against the upstart Bulldogs. VanDerveer and her staff were doing more than watching as Gonzaga and Louisville played, they were listening. Couldn't help but. The heavily partisan Gonzaga crowd roared throughout the game, from the introduction of star guard Courtney Vandersloot (who finished with 29 points), into halftime and the closing minutes when the Bulldogs averted disaster in the form of a hard-charging Cardinals team.
If the secret to a great real estate purchase is location, location, location, the same can be said of a Final Four run. At least in this case. Gonzaga was handed a couple of blessings: two home games in the first two rounds, and then a chance to move on with a regional in hometown Spokane. But they still had to put aside the pressure and make good on the opportunity. So far, they have done just that.
They also have experience against Stanford, a 74-68 loss in Spokane early in the season that will be not only a road map, but a source of motivation. And then there's the small matter of a crowd so loud it makes your ears ring.
Gonzaga is a clearly a team that thinks it can win this game and the people who showed up in Spokane Arena are right there with them. Stanford cannot afford for all the things that went wrong on Saturday night to go wrong again. Because, as we found out Saturday, it doesn't take long to get from exciting to excruciating.