- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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KINGSTON, R.I. -- Gonzaga point guard Taelor Karr has the toughest job in the building when her team plays Kentucky on Sunday in a regional semifinal, no small feat considering the other semifinal at Ryan Center features the dual challenges of coaching against Connecticut's Geno Auriemma and defending Penn State's Maggie Lucas.
But as the primary point guard charged with steering her team through the most treacherous waters in women's college basketball -- namely a Kentucky defense that forces almost 30 turnovers a game, which helped it earn an SEC regular-season championship -- Karr is on the hottest seat.
The good news for Gonzaga is it knows this isn't the most daunting challenge Karr has faced this season.
The good news for Karr is she won't face it alone. She knows people have her back.
Gonzaga helped Karr rediscover a passion for basketball, and she helped it return to the Sweet 16.
On March 19, Gonzaga upset Miami to advance to the Sweet 16, the third consecutive trip to the second weekend of the tournament for the West Coast Conference power.
But almost exactly a year to the day before that win, on March 20, 2011, Karr found herself on the other side of a postseason scoreboard, scoring 14 points in 39 minutes for Kansas State in a first-round loss against Purdue. Cut adrift by the Wildcats after the season, she landed at a school she struggled to place on a map. Prepared to sit out a redshirt season, the usual course of action for transfers, she instead learned five days before the start of practice last fall that the NCAA had granted her request for a waiver and immediate eligibility at Gonzaga.
Five days before the start of the season, she learned she would be one of the key figures expected to replace Courtney Vandersloot, an All-American and one of the most accomplished point guards in the history of women's college basketball.
You don't really even need to know Karr enters Sunday's game ranked third in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio to know that she does pretty well for herself under pressure.
That she's here at all proves that point beyond argument.
"All I know is we are blessed to have her," Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves said. "She has been a godsend. We didn't know exactly what we were going to do at that point guard spot post-Courtney because she was such a great basketball player, and everybody said, 'Well, Taelor's not a point guard, Taelor's not a point guard.' But she's definitely playing one on TV for us, that's for sure. ... She gives us some toughness. She gives us that Big 12 kind of mentality, and she's been in big games before."
There wasn't much geographic rhyme or basketball reason to Karr's search once she learned Kansas State wouldn't renew her scholarship. A Kansas native, she grew up around the Big 12 but knew moving to another conference school would mean sitting out two full seasons. Her final list of options included Colorado and Memphis, but a conversation with Graves put Gonzaga front and center in her mind -- even if she initially thought the school was in Washington, D.C., and needed a little help locating Spokane, Gonzaga's home in eastern Washington state, on a map.
What she heard was a coach who told tales about his kids and life in Spokane as much as he talked about basketball and systems, a guy working on a standup routine as much as a sales pitch. That impression didn't change when she visited Spokane, amazed at first by all the trees absent from the Plains, and it hasn't changed in the months since. As teammate Katelan Redmon puts it, Graves can be as intense as any taskmaster when things aren't done right on the court, but the jokes will inevitably start flying again soon thereafter. He's different, and Karr liked the sound of different right about then.
"I just remember him being a pretty funny guy," Karr recalled. "And then being here this whole season, that's how he is day in and day out. I know he wasn't putting on a front just to try and recruit me -- I kind of went through that whole process twice, so I kind of knew what was going to go on and what was going to happen. He's been the same and genuine day in and day out, and that's what I love about him."
People told Graves he wasn't getting a point guard in the 5-foot-8 Karr, let alone a point guard capable of replacing Vandersloot. She played the position in high school and AAU, even thought of herself as a pass-first player in those days, but Kansas State quickly moved her off the ball for most of two seasons in which she started 59 games.
Gonzaga saw a point guard from the moment she arrived, a player who took care of the ball, showed good court vision and whose ability to score points complemented those traits. No single player was going to replace Vandersloot -- even now, Karr and sophomore Jazmine Redmon split a lot of the playmaking duties -- but Karr being Karr went a long way toward allowing the team to finds its identity.
Nobody expects Karr to be Vandersloot, although at least at first, some fans in Spokane thought she was Vandersloot.
"There's a lot of people who asked if I was Courtney Vandersloot; I guess a lot of people thought I looked like her," Karr said. "But I knew of her from when I was at K-State, just seeing her on TV and the amazing stuff that her and Gonzaga did last year to make it to the Elite Eight. I have the utmost respect for her. She's a great player. I try not to worry about pressure and that kind of thing, trying to come in and fill her shoes because, obviously, no one is going to do that. She's one of a kind."
Take away Vandersloot and Gonzaga actually finished last season with more assists than turnovers. So it speaks to how quickly Karr learned where and when to get her teammates the ball that not only do the Bulldogs still rank in the top 10 in scoring offense, playing Graves' preferred up-tempo style, but they rank seventh in assist-to-turnover ratio, trailing Baylor, Stanford and Connecticut among teams still in the tournament. They have proven, tournament-caliber scorers in Katelan Redmon and Kayla Standish; an emerging star in Haiden Palmer, herself a transfer from Oregon State; and steady role players with offensive skills in Kelly Bowen and Jazmine Redmon. Karr was the piece that glued it all together.
"She's a gamer," assistant coach Jode Kaczor Berry said. "No matter what she does, she always gives you something. She's smart, she plays good defense. In a sense, she's a lot like Courtney in that she's way faster than you ever think she's going to be. She can shoot, which makes her a tough guard defensively. For us, that's huge. Five people on the floor who can score make us more difficult to guard, because you never know with us which kid is going to go off from game to game."
It won't be Karr and Karr alone left to deal with Kentucky's pressure. The Wildcats apply pressure unlike almost any team in the country, throwing guards at opponents like hockey lines for 40 minutes. The Bulldogs might have given the ball to Vandersloot and let her go at it last season, but they will use everyone this season. Karr will bring it up, both Redmons (not related) will bring it up, Bowen will bring it up. Any way they can get the ball safely across half court, they will. But whether doing so or running the offense once there, Karr will be the quarterback.
"I think she's been incredible for them," Kentucky assistant coach Matt Insell said. "Obviously you take a step back when you lose a great player, but the step back is not that big of a step. She's come right in, she's filled in a great role. She's had an unbelievable year for them. She's somebody that bothers us a lot, especially with our pressure; she's very equipped to handle that kind of stuff. She's a tough matchup for us, and our focus is to try to pressure her and get her sped up, but that's going to be a tough thing to do."
The exact circumstances that led Kansas State to part ways with Karr, who earned academic honors in her time at the school, remain murky. Karr makes it clear that the separation was not her call, supported by the NCAA decision to grant her immediate eligibility. There is still something in her words that sounds stung by her experience in two seasons in Manhattan, even as she suggests otherwise. But the words and eyes seem to converge again when she talks about her new home and new team. That they led her to the Sweet 16 is just an added bonus.
"I've moved on," Karr said. "Everything happens for a reason, and since it happened, things have only gotten better for me. At the point I was at at K-State, I had lost my passion for basketball. I was dreading getting up every day, having to go to practice, that kind of thing. So it's been great that I found Gonzaga, found my passion for basketball again. I love my teammates, love everything about it. I'm happy to get up every day and go play a game that I love. So there's really no reason for me to look back and try to stay mad or anything like that.
"They made their decision, and I can't thank them enough because it's only helped me in the long run."
Karr and teammate Danielle Walter, who quickly became her best friend in Spokane, will sometimes drive off into the night in Spokane in search of random places to explore. The best of their so-called "Spokane adventures" took them to South Hill, a neighborhood of outsized homes from a bygone era. Sometimes you just have to venture out and see what you find.
Gonzaga found a point guard who could help it solve Kentucky's riddle. Karr found a home.
13dBonnie D. Ford