Former Kentwood High star Courtney Vandersloot is on the verge to become the first woman to have 2,000 career points and 1,000 assists.
She sees things. When others perceive only a forest of arms and elbows and hands, Courtney Vandersloot sees things. In her world, the strands of motion on a basketball floor aren’t dead ends, they’re possibilities.
In four seasons at Gonzaga, Vandersloot has found a teammate 1,078 times for a basket, putting her in the company of only six other men and women — three on each side — with a thousand college assists.
That’s a lot of selflessness, a lot of court sense, a lot of points.
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“Every time I watch her play,” says her old high-school coach at Kentwood, Keith Hennig, who was at the recent West Coast Conference tournament in Las Vegas, “it just gives me goose bumps.”
This weekend, Gonzaga gets to host first- and second-round games of the NCAA tournament, fitting for Vandersloot. For four years, her intuitive, end-to-end game has been a perfect mesh with the highest-scoring team in the nation. Saturday’s game against Iowa is a curtain call of sorts for a player that has helped the Zags (28-4) to places they’ve never gone.
The 5-foot-8 Vandersloot reacts to that idea much as she might in dropping a dime to a teammate — in understated fashion.
“I’ve had such a great experience at Gonzaga,” she said after her team had wrapped up a third straight trip to the NCAAs. “I get the whole ‘why Gonzaga?’ a lot. But I wouldn’t be the player I am today if I didn’t go here, if I didn’t play for coach (Kelly) Graves and didn’t play around the players I play around.”
Early, she was a soccer player, but about the time she became a mid-teenager, she realized she enjoyed basketball more. Hennig, then new to Kentwood, remembers her as a freshman.
“I went up and introduced myself,” says Hennig. “I think she weighed about 70 pounds, and had braces on. She had a big smile on her face, and you could just tell she couldn’t wait to get on the court.”
Recruitment of Vandersloot is one of the great mysteries of West Coast women’s basketball, and perhaps a window to the endless ills of the programs at Washington and Washington State.
Late in her junior year, when she averaged 18 points and seven assists, she took an unofficial visit to Gonzaga, where the staff, particularly assistant Jodie Kaczor Berry, coveted her.
“My staff loved her,” says Graves, telling a story on himself. “I’d only seen her at a practice one day. I always like to say (to recruits), ‘You do this and this well, but this is where you need to work.’
“I didn’t know her very well. She had big numbers scoring, so I said, ‘I just think you could be a better passer.’ My assistants were going, ‘What are you talking about? Are you kidding me?’ “
Says Vandersloot, “I think I wanted to go to Gonzaga more than they wanted me. When I was able to commit, I wanted to do that.”
She had offers from Colorado State and Montana State, but not from UW or WSU. At the time, June Daugherty was a year removed from her ouster at Washington, and Sherri Murrell was still coaching the Cougars.
All they missed on was a player who, if she scores another 44 points, will become the first collegiate woman in history to score 2,000 and assist 1,000 times.
“Unfortunately, I think a lot of Pac-10 schools recruit to a model,” says Hennig. “You’ve got to be a 5-10 or 5-11 point guard. One thing I think a lot of those big schools underestimated is her heart and work ethic.”
At Gonzaga, she improved her shooting, got stronger, and after a painful couple of turnovers down the stretch of a second-round loss to Pitt in Seattle two years ago, she led the Zags into the Sweet 16 in 2010 for the first time.
“She’s the best point guard in the nation,” says Saint Mary’s coach Paul Thomas. “If I had to pick a team, I’d start with her.”
Her teammates have come to a realization about Vandersloot’s primary skill. If they’re getting the ball, there’s a reason.
“She probably sees you open,” says forward Claire Raap, her best friend, “before you see yourself open.”
Vandersloot has discussed the game with Gonzaga’s most famous passer, John Stockton. Graves says Corey Gaines, coach of the WNBA Phoenix Mercury, has likened Vandersloot’s court demeanor to that of Steve Nash.
“I’ve had several coaches, Hall of Fame coaches, say she’s the best ‘pocket’ passer they’ve ever seen,” Graves says. “You notice where she’s getting them the basketball — right where they can do something with it.”
The Gonzaga women have carved their own identity in Spokane, averaging 3,824 fans and winning followers across the board.
“She’s the real deal,” says Gonzaga men’s coach Mark Few. “She’s terrific. She gets it.”
It’s a basketball kind of life these days for Vandersloot, who has a single class this semester. She and her Chihuahua pug, Romeo, live in a house with several teammates.
She’ll give way to a handful of candidates to replace her next year, but there’s an understanding around Gonzaga. Says Graves, “We’ll never see another one like her in our parts.”
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org