Before he rebuilt Oregon, Kelly Graves built Gonzaga into a perennial title contender. Could Seattle U's Suzy Barcomb follow the same path to lead the Redhawks to national relevance? This year's NCAA tournament appearance is a start in the right direction

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EUGENE, Ore. — Seattle U’s charmed season ended in a blowout 88-45 loss to Oregon in the first round of the women’s NCAA tournament, but they have much to look forward to.

Seattle U made it to the first round of the WNIT in coach Suzy Barcomb’s first season, and built on that this year with their first ever NCAA tournament appearance. The program is on the upswing, and their goals keep growing.

Oregon coach Kelly Graves, who’s in his 10th trip to the NCAA tournament, was very complimentary of his vanquished foe, in part  because he has seen this arc before.

“They’ll be back,” Graves said. “I want to congratulate Seattle U on a great season. What Suzy has done there has been fantastic in two years. They were great competitors and a very classy group. That’s a program that’s going to continue to get better.”

Dozens of postseason wins and two Elite Eight appearances later, Graves still remembers his first tournament appearance as the Gonzaga women’s head coach in 2007 – albeit in somewhat inflated fashion.

“Middle Tennessee State beat my team by about a hundred,” Graves said. “But you’ve gotta walk before you run.”

In reality, the Zags were routed 85-46 in their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance. The score is surprisingly similar to the margin Seattle U lost to Oregon by in its NCAA tournament debut, and perhaps that bodes well for the Redhawks.

After turning the Gonzaga women into perennial West Coast Conference title contenders over 14 years in Spokane, Graves knows what it takes to build a program from scratch, and he believes Barcomb’s Seattle U program is on that road to sustained success.

“Very few teams just pop on the scene the first time and go all the way,” Graves said, referring to what last year’s NCAA tournament run did for his young Oregon team. “But once they get a taste of it, they want more.”

That hunger has also gripped the Redhawks.

The loss to Oregon “is fuel. It’s motivation for next year,” said junior guard Madeline Dopplick. “We were at the WNIT, and now we made it to the tournament. So our next goal is, ‘Let’s win a game.’ It’s motivation for the offseason.”

Next season, Seattle U has to replace two starters: leading scorer Alexis Montgomery and All-WAC second teamer Jacinta Beckley.

But a promising nucleus of players will return, including starting guards Kamira Sanders (the Western Athletic Conference tournament MVP) and freshman McKenzi Williams, an Auburn native who played every game and was elevated to the starting lineup in the Redhawks’ final seven games.

Dopplick, who started 25 games, will also be back, as will forward Kallin Spiller, Lakeside High alum who was named the 2017-18 Western Athletic Conference’s freshman of the year.

At 6-foot-3, Spiller’s presence in the paint against Oregon was huge for the woefully outsized Redhawks. Seattle U was outrebounded 45-26 and had only 26 points to Oregon’s 54 in the paint.

Spiller scored six of Seattle U’s 16 first half points against the Ducks Friday night at Matthew Knight Arena, and finished with 10 points, just above her 9.2 season average.

“I think her upside is not even remotely touched right now … Kallin has improved tremendously and she’s just a freshman,” Barcomb said. “I think she got her baptism early by her involvement with bigs that we had to go against – they were the MVPs of every team we’ve played, so I hope that gives her fuel to want to get better and improve.”

The loss to Oregon showed that the Redhawks need more size on their roster if they want to compete nationally.

Spiller was the biggest of Seattle U’s starting five, with 6-foot senior forward Jacinta Beckley checking in as next-tallest.

Meanwhile, across the floor, Oregon had two 6-foot-4 forwards in Satou Sabally and Ruthy Hebard, and their smallest player, 5-foot-9 Lexi Bando, was taller than the Redhawks’ two smallest starters: Williams, at 5-5, and Sanders, at 5-7.

“When you give up four and five inches on every single position, you have to be flawless,” Barcomb said. “And we weren’t executing on what we were trying to do. We were trying to ice Sabrina (Ionescu) and take her out of using the screen.

“We just had some breakdowns in communication. One time, I looked up and we were trying to rebound, and I couldn’t even see my players.”

Lack of size aside, the Redhawks will open next season as a seasoned team that’s better equipped to handle postseason play.

“This is a growing experience,” Barcomb said.