SAN MARCOS, Texas — Belmont women’s coach Bart Brooks brought his ‘A’ game to the news conference on Friday.
Asked what advantage his team will have over Gonzaga in Monday’s first-round NCAA tournament game, Brooks paused and pointed out that “We’re closer to the ground.”
That was another way of saying that fifth-seeded Gonzaga will enjoy a distinct height advantage when the teams tip off at 1 p.m. at Strahan Arena on the campus of Texas State University.
Pressing home his point, Brooks pointed out that all five starters for the 14th-ranked Zags (23-3) are taller than their Bruin counterparts.
“And we’re not going to grow taller overnight,” Brooks said. “But when you’re a bigger player and you always have someone underneath you on defense, that’s something that isn’t always pleasant,” Brooks said.
If the favored Zags can overcome their discomfort, they will advance to face Indiana or Virginia Commonwealth in a second-round game Wednesday in San Antonio.
GU has an undeniable height advantage inside with the 6-foot-3 Wirth sisters, Jenn and LeeAnne. They also have 6-1 Melody Kempton and 6-5 AnaMaria Virjoghe coming off the bench.
Another big plus is the emergence freshman Yvonne Ejim, who played well above her 6-1 stature in the WCC title game win over BYU.
GU comes into the NCAAs with a plus-13.6 rebounding margin, fourth-best in Division I. Belmont ranks 201st, with a minus-1.1 average.
Belmont (20-5) promises to counter with what Brooks calls a “good mix of guard play and some versatile bigs who can play outside. I think we need to use that we have to our advantage.”
For most of the season, Belmont has been winning by stealing the ball (11 per game to rank 15th nationally) and making a lot of three-pointers (almost nine per game).
Those advantages might be magnified against a bigger team, but this is no David-and-Goliath matchup either.
GU has burned many teams with its inside-out game, making 36.2% of its shots from long range. And while Belmont makes more threes, the Bruins rank only 57th in three-point accuracy at 34.7%.
“We’re not a small team, but we’re not the biggest. We have a good inside-out attack,” GU coach Lisa Fortier said.
Taking care of the ball will be the bigger issue for the Zags, who average 14.6 turnovers per game to rank in the middle of the pack nationally.
“We know that they’re going to shoot a bunch of threes, and that they’re going to turn people over,” GU senior guard Jill Townsend said.
“We just have to get our minds right that we have to stop the three and the midrange jumper, and value the ball,” Townsend said.
Gonzaga’s half-court game has been clicking of late. In the four games before the flu-plagued West Coast Conference title game, the Zags shot 49.8% from the floor while averaging almost 20 assists.
Fortier and others have compared Belmont to WCC rival Santa Clara.
The Broncos and their four-guard system took the Zags deep into the fourth quarter in 2 of their 3 meetings. In the WCC semis, they did it by forcing a season-high 21 GU turnovers and holding the Zags to 5-for-18 from beyond the arc.
Defensively, the Zags must contend with Belmont freshman guard Destinee Wells, the OVC Freshman of the Year after averaging 17.6 games.