SPOKANE – No. 25 Gonzaga University women’s basketball team gritted out a season-opening 64-54 victory over the University of Idaho Friday night at the McCarthey Athletic Center in the opening round of the Preseason WNIT. The Bulldogs overcame a poor shooting night and an early second half deficit to win their third-straight season opening game.
“I give Idaho a lot of credit,” said Gonzaga head coach Kelly Graves after the game. “They are a good team; they made the NCAA Tournament last year, returned all five starters and played us tough. I think at times tonight we didn’t play as hard as we’d like, but I am proud of the overall effort.”
The play of senior guard Haiden Palmer was crucial to Gonzaga coming back and holding on for the 8-point victory. The Zags leading returning scorer finished with a game-high 18 points – including 10 in the final 13 minutes of the game. The Moreno Valley, Calif., native also grabbed seven rebounds and had a game-high seven steals.
The Bulldogs, who returned four starters from their 2012-13 squad, also had new players emerge.
Junior guard Keani Albanez, in the starting lineup for the first time in her career, was the only other Zag to crack double-digits, finishing with 13.
“Keani has really had a great spring, summer and fall,” said Graves of Albanez who hit three 3-pointers and sank all four free throw attempts. “She has really worked hard to get herself into a starting position. She can stretch the defense and you saw that at times tonight.”
Sophomore forward Kiara Kudron came off the bench to play 21 minutes and grabbed a career-high 11 boards, while also chipping in six points. University of California transfer Lindsay Sherbert, playing in her first game in nearly a year and a half, also grabbed 11 rebounds and, despite an off shooting night of 2-for-11, added seven points.
“Lindsay had a bad shooting night but she’s a good player, good shooter,” stated Graves. “You know what great players do though; find a way to help. She got 11 rebounds. She wasn’t shooting the ball well, but she helped us tonight. Those 11 rebounds were big.”
After Idaho had opened the final half with a 16-2 run to dissolve the Zags 12-point halftime advantage and take a 2-point lead itself at 30-28, it was Sherbert that initially sparked the Bulldogs. After hitting one of two free throws, Sherbert converted an old fashion 3-point play to knot the game at 32 with 14:12 remaining in the game.
Palmer then took over. She not only scored 10 points in the final 13 minutes, but also made four steals -which the Zags converted into six points – and blocked one shot.
With the game tied at 45-45 at 7:44, Palmer rattled off seven of her 10 points and seven of the Bulldogs next 11 points to give her team some breathing room at 56-50 with 3:30 left on the clock.
“Haiden made plays at important times and we praised her in the locker room,” said Graves. “That’s what a senior leader does. When we needed her, she did it. She did it with her defense first and then hit a couple of those pull-up jump shots, got to the rim a couple times and got fouled. That’s what the great ones do. I’m really proud of her; that’s a big step for her.”
Gonzaga only allowed Idaho to get within four of the lead in the final three minutes and secured the win on the free throw line, hitting four in the final 1:18.
The Bulldogs ended the night hitting 32.8 percent (21-of-64) from the field, including just 15.8 percent (3-of-19) from beyond the 3-point arc. They won the battle of the boards 53-48 and forced 13 turnovers.
Idaho was led by Alyssa Charlston and Christina Salvatore with 15 and 14 points, respectively. Nine of the Vandals 17 field goals came from beyond the 3-point arc, including four by Salvatore.
Gonzaga now hosts UT Martin Sunday at 2 p.m. in the second round of the Preseason WNIT. The Seahawks defeated Georgia State 84-78 to earn their spot in the second round.