It was a hotly contested game from the opening tip to the final buzzer as the 2 seed Gonzaga Bulldogs tried to halt the 1 seed Loyola-Marymount Lions and the LMU 14 game winning streak. The last LMU loss was to Gonzaga and the Zags were determined to do it again.
It started with guard Shannon Mathews hitting a trey and then a two-pointer to open a quick 5-0 lead, but LMU would fight back and the lead would change hands sevens times before the Lions went on a run that put them up by nine points.
Regrouping after a couple of timeouts, the Zags started pounding the ball inside and Ashley Burke, Anne Bailey and Ashley Anderson responded. While missing too many high-percentage points, the lead still slowly, steadily shriveled from 9 to 7 to 4 to 2... And with four seconds remaining in the first half, Anne Bailey drew a shooting foul on a fastbreak and calmly sank two free throws to tie the game going into the locker rooms.
Much like how the women from Spokane bolted out to a lead to start the game, the women from LA scored the first seven points of the second half, turning the tables on Gonzaga. But this time LMU refused to allow the pesky Zags to catch up and held the 2 seed at arm's length throughout the final twenty minutes.
The lead was never more than seven but each time Gonzaga challenged LMU, the regular season titlists answered. Finally, with one last rush of energy, the Zag women cut the Lion lead to two with 25 seconds remaining.
After eight seconds elapsed, the Zags had no choice but to foul an 89% free throw shooter, but hope would glimmer as the first shot fell off no good. After the second foul shot swished in, GU called timeout, down by three, a berth into the NCAA Tournament waiting for the winner.
Shannon Mathews would drive to the hoop but her shot wasn't close and the ball bounced off rebounders out of bounds. Still, Gonzaga had the ball, but with only slightly more than 4 seconds to the end.
After another timeout, Katy Ridenour inbounded the ball to Mathews who tried to free herself for a trey shot, but LMU's defense stepped up and the buzzer sounded with the ball tied up.
In 2003, Gonzaga earned a bye into the semi-finals and lost a crazy game in overtime. In 2004, Gonzaga earned that same bye, beat Pepperdine in overtime and came up three points short of the Big Dance.
Baby steps? Inch by inch? The answer is in the results. Head Coach Kelly Graves with assistants Jennifer Mountain, J.R. Payne and Toriano Towns have accomplished much, in spite of losses to injuries (Juliann Laney, Rachel Kane) to star players.
Now the only question remaining for 2004 is: Will the women Bulldogs be invited to the NIT?