Spokane isn’t generally regarded as a destination city but when the subject turns to college basketball, is there a better place to be than this mid-size town in Eastern Washington that boasts not one but two first-place teams?
With the first half of the West Coast Conference season about to make the turn to the second half, No. 3 Gonzaga is atop the men’s standings at 9-0 while just to be consistent, the school’s women’s team is also in first at 9-0.
These days it’s cool to be a Zag. At the McCarthey Center on campus, the men play before 6,422 fans, on average, only slightly more than the 5,233 who show up to support the Gonzaga women.
“It’s awesome,’’ said Elle Tinkle, the current WCC women’s player of the week. “It’s great for the whole university and the community here. Everybody gets excited for the Zags. It’s a neat feeling. It just makes things really exciting to have both programs doing as well as they are.’’
First-year Gonzaga women’s coach Lisa Fortier said much the same as her player: “It makes it nice to be around the office. The support we have for the men’s and women’s programs is awesome. To be even in the conversation with what the guys are doing is an honor.’’
The Zag women have a two-game lead over BYU and Saint Mary’s, both at 7-2, and a three-game advantage over the 6-3 records of Pacific and San Diego. That’s all well and good. Just don’t expect to see Fortier kicking her feet up on her desk and relaxing any time soon.
“Does any coach ever feel comfortable?’’ she asked. “Absolutely not. The second half of conference is harder. I don’t think you’re ever comfortable until all is said and done.’’
The Zags are well positioned to be comfortable when all is said and done, working as they are on a 10-game win streak. They have a balanced offensive attack, good rebounding, they lead the conference in points per game (70.1) and fewest points allowed per game (58.0), are tops in free throw percentage (.779) and are second in the WCC with 5.3 blocked shots per game.
That’s a whole lot of good going on for Gonzaga.
“For us, every game is a challenge,’’ Fortier said. “There isn’t anybody who didn’t challenge us (in the first half of WCC play). If we’re not focused and ready, anybody is capable of beating anybody in the league. If you don’t bring your ‘A’ game, you’re going to get beat.’’
Gonzaga has been bringing home A’s since Elle Tinkle moved into the starting lineup early in the season after an injury to wing Lindsay Sherbert, the Cal transfer. Tinkle, who comes from a remarkable basketball family, is averaging 11.9 points per game overall, a figure that soars to 16.9 in conference games.
“I think it was just me becoming more confident in seeing myself as a scoring threat,’’ Tinkle said. “I didn’t have that role yet as a scoring threat. I knew the other four people I was on the court with are also scoring threats. It keeps the defense honest. It’s a combination of being confident that I could score and also needing to do what I had to to help my team out. I had to take it upon myself to be as productive on the offensive end as possible.’’
Tinkle, a 6-foot-2 guard/small forward, is the daughter of Oregon State men’s coach Wayne Tinkle, who played college basketball at Montana, as did her mother Lisa. Older sister Joslyn Tinkle played at Stanford and is now earning paychecks playing in Turkey. Her younger brother is a senior in high school who will play for his dad at Oregon State next season.
“Coaches’ kids seem to have a different feel for the game,’’ Fortier said. “You can tell she had coaches for parents. We have a bunch of them on our team. They’re students of the game. All of their parents are awesome. It’s a positive.’’
Further bolstering Gonzaga are 6-4 forward Sunny Greinacher (14.1 ppg, 6.1 rpg), 6-5 center Shelby Cheslek (8.9 rpg) and 5-10 guard Keani Albanez (11.4 ppg).
Other than Spokane being the place to be, What We Learned from the first half of the women’s conference schedule is:
- SAN DIEGO causes the most double-takes in the WCC. Coach Cindy Fisher has two sets of identical twins on the roster. To further confound spectators, the Ederaines are Sophie and Sophia while the Hoods are Malina and Maya. A little alphabetical disparity in those first names would have been nice, like Abby and Zoe. But no.
- While Malina and Maya are both 5-foot-10 and starters for the 6-3 Toreros, Sophie is a 5-9 reserve while Sophia somehow got all the height and is a force to be reckoned with. The 6-3 Sophia has nine double-doubles and the only triple-double in the conference this season: 21 points, 23 rebounds and 10 blocked shots at PACIFIC on Jan. 17.
- SAINT MARY’s has three Australians on its women’s roster and three Aussie-Aussie-Aussies (Oy! Oy! Oy!) on the men’s roster. Great balance contributed to Saint Mary’s 7-2 mark (14-6 overall) for the first half of the conference season. Lauren Nicholson leads the Gaels with 17.9 points per game; a supporting cast of five players averages between 5.6 and 9.7 points per game.
America’s Finest City
That’s what San Diego civic leaders like their fine little town to be known as. In keeping with perhaps America’s Finest Weather, the Toreros posed barefoot outside on a patch of grass for their team picture. The boring old men’s team took its picture in the gym with sneakers laced. Boo!
Shooting contest we’d like to see
Their respective coaches probably would recoil in horror at the thought, but how about a free throw contest between men’s leader Johnny Dee of SAN DIEGO (.914/85 of 93) and women’s leader Nici Gilday of SANTA CLARA (.905/57 of 63) on the eve of the WCC Tournament in Las Vegas in March?
It could make for compelling theater. With Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot’’ playing on the sound system, each sharpshooter would get, say, 50 shots as showgirls hold up cards indicating the number of successful attempts. The drama would build with each swish on opposite ends of the court.
After 50, confetti would rain down on the winner, who would then be carried on the shoulders of his or her teammates through the Orleans casino. Great fun! Who’s with me?
A limited number of all-session passes were just released by the West Coast Conference Monday, Jan. 26 for the WCC Tournament in Las Vegas March 5-10 at the Orleans Arena. All-session passes are now available for sale online at WCCHoopsInVegas.com. All-session passes for the event at the Orleans Arena in the casino of the same name cost $175 for all nine men's games and all nine women's games, 18 games in all.
Breaking it down, that's $9.72 per game for the $175 package. Further ticket information is available below: HERE or log on to WCChoopsInVegas.com.
John Crumpacker spent more than three decades working at the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle. During his career he has covered the full gamut of sports from prep to professionals. Most recently, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for Cal through the end of the 2013-14 season. In addition to covering 10 Olympic Games, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for the San Francisco 49ers. He is a two-time winner of the Track & Field Writers of America annual writing award and has several APSE Top 10 writing awards.