WOMEN'S COLLEGE BASKETBALL: Kentwood star excels at Gonazaga

SPOKANE – The women playing college basketball seem to get bigger and better every year, but elf-like Courtney Vandersloot stands tall for Gonzaga as long as a tape measure isn’t involved.

“She really is the engine that makes us go,” Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves said. “We’ve always been a defense-oriented team – we’re still pretty good on defense – but last year we jumped to fifth in the nation in scoring, and that was primarily due to Courtney.”

Vandersloot, a lean point guard who grudgingly admits that she fudges a bit on her listed height of 5-foot-8 (“I’m at least 5-7”), plays basketball like the Energizer Bunny on a caffeine buzz.

The Kentwood High School graduate won Gonzaga’s Hustle Award as a freshman last season, and the Bulldogs might as well dispense with the formalities and engrave her name on the trophy for the next three years.

“I’ve always been so competitive,” said Vandersloot, who averaged 26 points per game as the state player of the year at Kentwood in 2006-07. “I hate to lose at anything, especially sports, but I hate to lose at stupid little board games.”

Vandersloot’s last two high school teams went 52-6, and her first two college teams have gone 36-12.

The Bulldogs will be heavy underdogs when they face two-time defending NCAA champion Tennessee before a sellout crowd of 6,000 Tuesday at Gonzaga (5 p.m., FSN), but Vandersloot says the 11-3 Bulldogs won’t be intimidated by the eighth-ranked, 8-2 Lady Vols.

“We’re not going into this game just to play it,” Vandersloot said. “We’re going in to win it, and we think we can do it.”

That type of attitude – not to mention a sweet jumper, great quickness, marvelous passing ability and a fearless willingness to drive to the hoop in traffic or dive for loose balls – helped Vandersloot win the newcomer of the year award in the West Coast Conference last season.

Vandersloot averaged 10.6 points and 5.6 assists per game and made the all-conference team for the Zags, the WCC regular-season champions.

This season, Vandersloot has bumped her averages up to 15.8 points (seventh in the WCC) and 7.0 assists (first in the WCC and one of the top 10 marks in the country). She was named WCC player of the week for the second time this season Monday.

“She’s really crafty as far as passing,” said Gonzaga forward-post Heather Bowman, the reigning WCC player of the year. “She’s a really good shooter, too.

“She’s a very intelligent player. Defensively, she’s flying around and just getting in players’ faces and frustrating them.”

Two of Gonzaga’s top six scorers will miss the Tennessee game with injuries – Jami (Bjorklund) Schaefer and Tiffanie Shives, both sidelined by knee injuries – but Vandersloot has helped pick up the load by shooting better and more frequently than last season.

Although Bowman leads the WCC in scoring for the second consecutive year at 19.2, Vandersloot has complemented Bowman by improving her shooting percentages from 41.2 to 45.8 from the field, 33.0 to 44.4 on 3-pointers and 65.4 to 74.5 at the free-throw line.

“I know Coach wants me to look to score,” Vandersloot said. “Bowman can’t carry us every game.

“She’s going to be our No. 1 scorer, our No. 1 option, but we have to have a consistent person that can score other than Bowman. People are going to throw double teams at her.

“I have the confidence to step up and be that second scorer.”

Vandersloot, a sports management major who hopes to play pro ball before coaching in college, is unusual for a Division I basketball star in that she hit the AAU summer circuit only after her last two years of high school.

She was a high-scoring striker in club and high school soccer, but Vandersloot said, “I enjoyed basketball more.” Her love for the game is evident every time she takes the court.

“She’s just got a great attitude,” Graves said. “She works hard every day.”

“It’s easy to follow her lead,” Bowman said. “She’ll do anything to win.”