Reporting from Spokane, Wash.
The Bruins lost but learned hard lessons at Stanford.
Bruins Coach Nikki Caldwell said last week that "no favors were done" when the NCAA tournament selection committee seeded the Bruins third in the Spokane Regional and put them on course to play an opening-weekend game on the road.
Now, here they are.
A sellout crowd of 6,000 passionate Bulldogs fans is expected to pack "The Kennel" to root for the nation's highest-scoring team. The 11th-seeded Bulldogs' only loss at home came against second-ranked Stanford, the top-seeded team in the regional.
"The crowd is important and we do feed off it," Gonzaga Coach Kelly Graves said.
Gonzaga fans were deafening Saturday during the Bulldogs' first-round victory over Iowa. Few stuck around to see UCLA struggle against Montana, seats emptying quickly as fans presumably headed out to watch the Gonzaga men's team play BYU on television.
They will be back in full force to see whether the Bruins can slow down a team that averages 86 points a game.
Caldwell and her players downplayed the crowd's potential impact. The Bruins' only loss on the road this season was at Stanford.
"We've been in a lot of hostile environments, such as Notre Dame and Stanford, where we've had 11 fans and they had thousands," UCLA forward Jasmine Dixon said.
Said Caldwell: "We've got some blue scattered [in Gonzaga's arena]. We don't have a lot."
When Graves took over at Gonzaga 11 years ago, he said the fan base consisted of "Mom, Dad, some roommates and a couple people who just happened to wander into the gym not knowing that there was actually a game there."
Now, more than 2,700 season-ticket holders will help pack the arena to the rafters against the Bruins.
"People come because they want to support a winner," Graves said, adding, "and I think a lot of people come out to see that little blonde, No. 21."
Blond point guard Courtney Vandersloot, a 5-foot-8 senior, averages a nation-best 10 assists and a team-high 19.1 points a game.
The three-time West Coast Conference player of the year, who has worked with former Gonzaga and Utah Jazz star John Stockton, needs only 10 points to become the first player in NCAA history with 2,000 points and 1,000 assists.
"I don't want to dramatize it too much, but she's like [Wayne] Gretzky in hockey," Stockton told the Spokane Spokesman-Review.
On Saturday, Vandersloot scored a career-high 34 points in a 92-86 victory over Iowa.
Caldwell said the Bruins would have to be "creative" to control Vandersloot, who made all 11 of her free throws against Iowa.
The Bruins must "wear down her play and not allow her to go the distance," Caldwell said. "We want to be able to keep fresh bodies on her."
As good as Vandersloot is with the ball, she can be equally effective without it. Against Iowa, she repeatedly raised her hands above her shoulders and exhorted Bulldogs fans to stand and roar.
"Sometimes," she said, "they just need a little bit of a cue."