by Matthew Snyder

There’s this well-known story in Spokane.

Kelly Graves, head coach of the Gonzaga women’s basketball team, is stepping onto a plane at the international airport, contemplating his future.

Well, sort of. He might just be considering how far he’s come.

It’s May 2011, and Graves is a month removed from leading the Bulldogs on a thrilling run to the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight. There were wins over Iowa, UCLA and Louisville—BCS powers all—and a 31-5 final record that punctuated a thrilling rise in recent seasons.

They’d been to the Sweet 16 in 2010, and they’d go again in 2012. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Let’s start with Graves’s first GU team, in 2000-01. They went winless in conference play. And don’t let that record fool you, says Graves.

They weren’t that good.

But now they’re one of the premier teams in the country, and Graves has become one of the most sought-after coaches.

The University of Washington has taken notice, and it has contacted Graves about its open women’s head coaching position. Graves wasn’t seriously considering leaving Gonzaga, but since he was hopping over to Seattle to do some recruiting, he figured he’d pay U-Dub a visit.

But as he enters this aircraft, leaving the soft, Spokane spring sun (don’t let the long winter fool you: when the weather warms, this place is beautiful) for the cool of the main cabin, he’s jerked back to the present. Because a couple seated near the front of the plane has recognized him, and they’ve begun clapping.

It takes seconds for a wave of applause to crescendo around him. Before he knows it, everyone is standing.

This was appreciation for the program Graves has created during his then-11 years at Gonzaga. It may sound corny, but he wants his players to care for each other. He believes that a person cannot truly be whole until they become part of something bigger than themselves.

Unsurprisingly, success has followed, and the community has responded.

Fast-forward to the present. Gonzaga just clinched its 10th consecutive West Coast Conference regular-season title, tying them for the fifth-longest streak in women’s college basketball history. They’ve won 20 games for the eighth season running. Last Tuesday, they reined in their fifth WCC tournament title (out of six). They punched their seventh NCAA Tournament bid in the past eight years.

Consider: in their latest tourney title game in Las Vegas, the Bulldogs held BYU without a field goal for 15 minutes. They used a three-quarters court pressure defense to force 21 Cougars turnovers, and chipped in 17 assists on 24 field goals on the way to an emphatic 72-57 win. Deadpans Graves about this year’s bunch, “Our defense has been pretty solid.”

The Bulldogs led the WCC in that department, giving up just 56 points per game. They held 10 opponents to 50 points or less, including a 56-24 masterpiece at home over Portland on January 3. (The Pilots shot just 17 percent from the field.)

This has been one of the most challenging seasons for Graves as a coach. So many skilled players, and only so many minutes to go around.

Eleven players average over 8.7 minutes per game. Five average more than 20, but none more than 30. Take a recent league win against Portland (this time, on the road). Palmer was the only player to post double figures in points—and she had 12.

“We have so many moving parts,” says Graves. “I can keep searching down my bench and find, hopefully, somebody that can have a good night. Kids are improving and developing, and more so than ever before. That’s why I’m really excited.”

There’s a reason talented kids come to this program, says Graves, and it’s sure not the interminable Spokane winter. They’re not scared of competition.

“They’re here because they want to win. They want to come to a successful program,” says Graves.

These Bulldogs are 29-4, marking the seventh season running that they’ve won at least 25 games. (In ’06-07, they nabbed a ‘paltry’ 24.) They’ve assisted on 57 percent of their field goals.

They’ve been steadily scratching items off their seasonal list.

Go undefeated at home? Check.

Finish first in the regular-season league standings? Check.

Win the conference tournament? Check.

Their home attendance average of 5,426 over 16 games at the McCarthey Athletic Center (cap. 6,000) led the West Coast Conference by a country mile. They had two sellouts, bringing the grand total to 19. Consider that this season, de-facto West Coast powerhouse and Pac-12 program Stanford averaged 3,446 over 14 games at Maples Pavilion.

Each year, it seems Gonzaga comes just a bit closer to smashing that ‘mid-major’ label to smithereens.

And just you wait—this might be Graves’s best bunch yet.

***

Lindsay Sherbert is a 6-foot kid from Temecula, CA, with a swiss-army knife effect on offense that includes deadly range from deep. Two years ago, she abandoned Twitter after five posts because (and this should give you a hint at her healthy handle on humor) “it was best for both of us.”

Sherbert spent her first two seasons at California, but when she decided to move on after the ’11-12 season, she quickly whittled her choices of a transfer down to Boston College and Gonzaga.

The former McDonald’s All-American first visited the Eagles’ sprawling campus in Chestnut Hill, but from the moment she landed in Spokane and met with the Gonzaga players, she knew she was going to land here.

When she stepped onto the Kennel court for a game and heard that sound, she couldn’t believe it. The coaching staff had told Sherbert to expect sellouts—and the ever-present noise—but she needed to see it, and feel it, first.

“Realizing how much basketball means to this community…to see a gym full for a women’s game? I’d never seen that before,” says Sherbert. “I got goosebumps, and I wasn’t even playing. That was pretty neat. I couldn’t pass that up.”

Then there’s this 6-4 post from Essen, Germany—a junior, like Sherbert—who combines supreme dexterity in the paint with a mid-range jumper from 15 feet in that Graves calls “as good as I’ve coached.”

Sunny Greinacher spent her sophomore year in high school as an exchange student in Oregon, but she didn’t have a chance to visit Gonzaga during the recruitment process. She received her fair share of pictures of the campus and the team, though, and when the staff called her, they’d put her on speakerphone in the office. Players would filter through the office, and she could talk with her future teammates.

The coaches came to visit her in Germany. That made quite an impression. It didn’t hurt, either, that Gonzaga fit her preferred style of playing.

“I didn’t know what to expect [when I signed],” says Greinacher. “I hadn’t seen the campus in person or met the team, but I kind of liked that—not knowing. It was adventurous.”

She was made to feel right at home, and could soon rattle off the names that have become so synonymous with this standard of success. Bekkering, Bowman, Vandersloot, Standish, Redmon, Bowen, Karr. They imparted the maxims that ring throughout the years. Team before self. Crisp execution. Character. There’s a reason they became the heroes of the next generation of Eastern Washington hoopers.

Says Greinacher, who played the ’11-12 season with [Kayla] Standish, “She’s still one of my favorite players. They were really motivating as seniors, and since we were freshmen, they helped us fit in. I learned a lot from them.”

Heading into this season, Graves believed that Sherbert, who sat out ’12-13 due to NCAA rules, had a real shot to win conference Player of the Year. In just her third game as a Zag, facing the University of Oklahoma, on their home court to boot, she nabbed a double-double.

But, like Greinacher, who slumped midway through the season, Sherbert has endured her share of growing pains. She was stifled during December road losses to Stanford and Saint Mary’s. The loss against the Gaels prompted Graves to change up his starting rotation, swapping out Sherbert for redshirt-sophomore post Shelby Cheslek. The Bulldogs rattled off 13 consecutive conference wins.

Instead of moping, Sherbert sought to augment her impact on the game. If she was coming off the bench, then she’d focus on putting opponents in a bind from the moment she checked in. “Whatever we need, ‘Sherbs’ can give us a lift right off the bat,” says Graves. “She’s the key to our season. She’s crafty enough to score around the hoop, but when she gets that stroke of hers going, we become a helluva lot tougher.”

Every week, Sherbert called Taelor Karr, the WCC Player of the Year in ’12-13, who’s now playing professionally in France. She considers Karr to be one of her best friends, and during those long conversations, they’d talk about basketball and the highs and lows that accompany a change of scenery. (Karr transferred to Gonzaga from Kansas State ahead of the ’11-12 season.) “I could trust her last year, and I can still go to her for advice,” Sherbert says.

“It’s not just your first five that put up numbers. Girls coming off the bench perform, too. That’s why we’ve been winning,” Sherbert says.

Facing Saint Mary’s in the WCC tournament semifinals, Sherbert subbed in at the 13:09 mark. By the time the halftime buzzer sounded, she’d poured in 14 points. In the previous game against San Francisco, she dropped 17, including three threes. Sherbert averaged 15.3 points for the tournament, and hit 58 percent from the floor, 62 percent from deep.

Greinacher was sensational in the championship, flexing her versatility on the offensive end by mixing those trusty pick-and-pop jumpers with deft moves around the bucket. She added 6 rebounds and 3 assists, and was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.

And we haven’t talked about Haiden Palmer, the Zags’ leading scorer and one of the top playmakers on the West Coast. Despite going 0-8 from the field against the Cougars in the final (she finished with 3 points), the Zags still won handily.

The NCAA Tournament seems tailor-made for Palmer’s star effect. (Graves has referenced elements of Dwyane Wade’s impact in her offensive approach.) In her first appearance with the Zags, a first-round win over Rutgers in 2012, the Oregon State transfer finished with 21 points, 4 assists and 5 steals. Last year, in a loss to Iowa State in the Round of 64, she notched a double-double—with points and steals.

Graves knows that if this team is going to make noise, they’ll need Palmer at her best. “She’s maturing as a player,” Graves says. “We share the ball as a team, and her assists numbers this season have been great. (Palmer has 81 assists, third-best on the Zags.—Ed.)

“I still tell her when I need her to go nuts, put us on her back and create, but we’re better when we’re running our motion system on offense. But if we get [Haiden] going along with Sherbert and Greinacher for a stretch, we’ve got the chance to make a real run.”

***

Here’s another story, nestled snugly in the ever-growing GU lore.

In fact, this one helped spark it.

It’s the spring of 2000, and Graves is in Spokane to meet with Bulldogs athletic director Mike Roth. Graves had spent the past three seasons at another Catholic college, Saint Mary’s, where he’d posted a 66-26 record and reached the NCAA Tournament in ’99. The Gaels gave Notre Dame a serious scare in the first round before bowing out.

He was renowned as a relentless recruiter, and a rising force. So why make a switch to Spokane? Well, Graves’s wife, Mary, grew up there. Then, her brother asked Roth if he’d thought about Graves for the women’s head coaching position, which had just become vacant.

As Roth recounted to the Seattle Times two years ago, he didn’t think Graves would even consider Gonzaga.

But it turned out that Graves was looking for a change, and so he met Roth for lunch at Spencer’s, a steakhouse just a short walk from campus along the Spokane River. They’d barely sat down when Roth told Graves exactly what he wanted to hear.

We want our women’s team to be as good as our men’s team. What do you need?

“And they’ve come through,” says Graves. “We won at the right time. We set the price point on season tickets. People came, and they stuck with it, and winning begat winning. We do a great job in the community. It’s a hot commodity.”

These days, Graves can’t make a weekend run to Costco without being hailed by dozens of fans curious about the latest news on the team. Sometimes, they simply congratulate him on the job he’s doing. “I love that,” he says. “And it’s better than the alternative!”

Gonzaga women’s basketball games have a very different feel to those of the men’s. They respect the other side—Sherbert remembers whipping out her phone to take a video of students stomping to the sounds of Zombie Nation before tipoff—but they appreciate that their fans are there to see them.

They build relationships when they filter back out onto the floor after games. They sign waves of autographs. They can’t get enough. Last season, the Zags ranked 13th nationally in attendance, with 5,678 fans a night.

“They love to come and watch good basketball,” says Sherbert. “That’s what we’re known for. We’re team-oriented, and night in and night out, we work hard. Who wouldn’t want to support something like that? That crowd has become part of our team. It’s such a cool atmosphere.”

So it’s different from the men’s? That’s fine, said Kayla Standish, almost two years ago now. The all-time great was sitting outside the team’s locker room, minutes after Gonzaga had taken down Miami in the NCAA Tournament Round of 32.

“We have the community involved, and it’s just nice that our fans are there because they love women’s basketball, and they love us.”

It motivates the players, says Greinacher, who remembers that for her biggest games in Germany, a thousand souls might show up. “We practice and we work hard, and that support gives you a push. That’s something we get back from them during games,” she says.

It has all coalesced. While he continues to be linked to open positions (see: Oregon), Graves signed a 10-year contract extension back in ‘11. He’s hailed for placing a premium on family.

And he’s made Gonzaga a staple on the national scene, proving that if you do this thing right, you can sustain a top program anywhere. They play a national schedule, and take a private plane.

When the Zags went to the Elite Eight, they probably didn’t have the eighth-best talent in the country. The same went for the Sweet 16 years.

“But what we’ve always had is great character,” says Graves. “We have players who want to play for their teammates. It may sound like a cliché, but I really feel our program is very family-oriented.”

Vandersloot has come to a couple practices this season, which helps players like Sherbert get a handle on the history. “When I graduate, I want to come back and feel a part of this,” Sherbert says. “It’s one of the most important aspects of this program. People want to come back.”

When Sherbert talks with recruits these days, she imparts a simple message freighted with the weight of her own experience. “If you’re passionate and 100 percent in for basketball, you need to come to Gonzaga,” she says, voice rising, as she rattles off the perks. “You’ll experience a phenomenal school. Team basketball. Incredible fan support. I try to talk to them about what they really want out of a college experience.”

So, with the NCAA Tournament looming (Gonzaga is a 6-seed, and will face No. 11 James Madison on Sunday in College Station, TX), Graves will once again unleash this eclectic bunch.

“We all know that we have the ability to go really far this year if we bring it,” says Greinacher. “That’s a motivation to step back a little bit, if someone else is having a great night. If that helps us reach our goal, we’re for it.”

Graves has visited different programs on the West Coast, and discussions frequently turn toward the Pac-12, long considered the pinnacle in the region. But only two of its programs have accomplished what Gonzaga did in that three-year run with the Elite Eight charge sandwiched by the Sweet 16s.

“Only Cheryl Miller’s USC teams in the ‘80s and Stanford have done that,” says Graves. “That says something about what can be done at a school that doesn’t have the big football program.”

He waits a beat, then adds something else, in closing.

“And that’s pretty cool.”