March 22, 2010
SEATTLE -- Twenty minutes in December made Gonzaga fearless in March. No one more so than Vivian Frieson.
And because of Frieson, the Bulldogs are headed to the regional semifinals and Texas A&M is going home ending the Aggies dream of a Final Four trip three hours from campus.
Gonzaga's do-everything senior scored 23 points, including the go-ahead 12-footer with 17 seconds left, to lead seventh-seeded Gonzaga to a 72-71 upset win over second-seeded Texas A&M on Monday night in the second round of the NCAA women's tournament.
That little Jesuit school from Spokane is making tournament noise again. But move over guys, it's the ladies turn now.
"It means the world to me. Me and Heather (Bowman) have been a part of a lot of firsts here at this university," said Frieson, who added nine rebounds, five assists and four blocks. "It felt great to go to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 2007. It felt great to win our first game last year against Xavier and it feels even better to go to the Sweet 16."
Gonzaga won its 20th straight, its last loss coming to the same Aggies three months ago in Las Vegas. And it was in that 80-76 loss to Texas A&M where the Bulldogs (29-4) first believed they could play on the same floor with such a talented team.
The Bulldogs more than proved they belonged Monday night. And their reward is the first regional semifinals berth in school history, with either Vanderbilt or Xavier waiting for them Saturday in Sacramento.
"It's a shame one of us had to go home because I think you've got two basketball teams that could go on and be great in the regional," Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said. "By far this is the hardest second-round game that we've had to play since I've been in the NCAAs."
Perhaps given a raw deal having to face Gonzaga just 300 miles from its campus, the Aggies (26-8) dug themselves a 13-point deficit early in the second half, only to rally behind their defense. Texas A&M led 71-70 on Tanisha Smith's baseline drive and basket, while being fouled, with 37 seconds left. But Smith fell hard on her hip and missed the ensuing free throw, one of seven misses at the line by the Aggies.
"I'm not going to blame an injury on the free throw. I just missed it," Smith said. "We missed a lot of free throws tonight and that was a big part of it."
With West Coast Conference MVP Courtney Vandersloot having fouled out with 1:21 left after one of her worst performances of the season, the Bulldogs (29-4) went to Frieson, their senior leader.
Getting the ball at the top of the key, she drove left of the lane and pulled up.
"That last timeout I might have seemed as cool as ice but in my head I was like, 'I'm not ready to go home. I can't go home right now. This is not how I wanted to finish my senior year," Frieson said. "I knew if I got the ball in my hands I was going to go up with it."
Texas A&M had one last chance, but the Bulldogs defense harassed Danielle Adams into a forced jumper from 18 feet as time ticked away. The shot was short, setting off a wild celebration for Gonzaga. Adams, the Aggies burly center, led A&M (26-8) with 19 points and 10 rebounds.
"We had the lead a couple of times and we just couldn't pull it off," Adams said, pulling her somber face from her hands.
Tiffanie Shives scored 11 points and Katelan Redmon added 10 for Gonzaga. Vandersloot, the Bulldogs spunky engine, finished with just nine points and 11 turnovers, but had a key 3-pointer and assist for a 3-pointer late to help the Bulldogs move on.
"We have a lot of different players that on any given night can step up and carry us. ... That's just been one of our strengths," Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves said.
It was the middle of December, in Las Vegas, when Gonzaga and Texas A&M met for the first time. For the first 20 minutes, the Aggies did as expected and dominated the smaller, less athletic Bulldogs.
But something flipped in the second half for Gonzaga. They tore away the mystique of their Big 12 foes and proved most importantly to themselves they belonged on the same stage as a ranked team like the Aggies. Gonzaga turned a 20-point deficit into a narrow four-point loss to the Aggies on that December evening in front of few hundred people in a casino events center. Admittedly, the Bulldogs say was the turning point in their season.
They still haven't lost since.
Gonzaga forced the issue on A&M in the first half, pressing the Aggies into uncharacteristic mistakes and closing the first-half on a 12-2 run to take a 42-31 lead.
That lead grew to 44-31 in the first moments of the second half after Blair was called for a technical foul, storming a few feet on the court after a no-call. That ignited the Aggies, who outscored Gonzaga 21-6 over the next 8 minutes and took their first lead on Smith's 3-pointer with 11:49 left. Kayla Standish answered for the Bulldogs and started a back-and-forth final 11 minutes where neither team ever led by more than three points.
Gonzaga seemed to withstand the Aggies charge and took a 70-67 lead on Shives 3-pointer with 2:07 left. But the Aggies answered with free throws by Sydney Colson and Smith's driving basket to retake the lead, her 17th point of the night.
But Frieson had one final answer.
"For me, it was just something I had to do," Frieson said.