By DOUG FEINBERG AP Basketball Writer
Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves said it was a no-brainer. He wasn’t going to deny seniors Kayla Standish and Katelan Redmon a chance to represent their country at the Pan Am Games . Even if the timing wasn’t ideal.
The two Zags stars will play for the U.S. women’s basketball team in the tournament held Oct. 21-25 in Guadalajara, Mexico. The squad will start training in Houston on Oct. 15.
“This doesn’t happen to schools like us very often,” Graves said. “The higher-profile kids usually play on the international teams. I’m thrilled for them as it’s a great experience.”
The Pan-Am Games, which are contested every four years, are generally played in the summer. College practices can begin on Oct. 2, meaning that players could potentially miss 10 days with their school teams.
But USA basketball national team director Carol Callan had no problems filling the squad. She sent out a letter the first week in August to Division I coaches to see who might be available. Callan got an overwhelming positive response.
“We were thrilled with the amount of collegiate players interested in representing USA Basketball in Guadalajara next month and had a very difficult time getting the list down to the final 12-member team,” she said.
The roster is made up of 11 college players - mostly from mid-major schools - and high school senior Breanna Stewart, who has verbally committed to Connecticut.
“I see far more positives than negatives for them going,” Graves said. “We run the same stuff.”
The Americans will be led by former Colorado coach Ceal Barry and assistants Jennifer Gillom and Debbie Ryan.
“We have a great variety of players, and I think the selection committee did a tremendous job in a tough time period,” Barry said. “It’s tough for college players to get away, but this is a group that is versatile and talented. We’ll find out once we get to Houston how we are going to fit these pieces together.”
First-year Santa Barbara coach Carlene Mitchell echoed Graves’ thoughts about the opportunity, although she’s in a different position compared to the veteran Zags coach. While Standish and Redmon are used to the Gonzaga system, Santa Barbara point guard Emilie Johnson - who made the team - is learning Mitchell’s new schemes.
The longtime assistant coach sat down with Johnson to map out practices, and the team will start Oct. 3 to limit the time that the guard will miss. The NCAA changed its rule last season, allowing colleges to start practices 40 days before their first game last year instead of on a specific date.
The U.S. men’s team doesn’t’ have the same problem because its made up of NBA Developmental League players.
“I asked coach Williams, our men’s coach, if I had lost my mind - he laughed,” Mitchell said. “For a kid like Emilie, she’s worked so hard. Her missing 10 practices for me is selfish for what she’ll get out of the life experience. Her dream has always been to wear the red, white and blue.”
Missed practice time isn’t the only potential problem - there’s always the chance of injury. Graves insists that he has no such concerns.
“You can’t worry about that,” he said. “We lost one of my future stars to a torn ACL when she got hurt during pregame introductions while getting a chest-bump a few years ago.”
Gonzaga will open up against Hofstra on Nov. 11. Like the Zags, Hofstra has its own star - Shante Evans - on the U.S. Pan Am roster.
Hofstra coach Krista Kilburn-Steveskey wouldn’t let Evans miss this great chance.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for all these kids to make this team to get in that USA family,” Kilburn-Steveskey said. “You can get yourself on the map.”
After Kilburn-Steveskey got the call from Callan that Evans had made the team, she reached her star player at home. The Hofstra coach made sure Evans’ mom and dad were listening when she delivered the good news. She heard screams of joy.
“This is the biggest moment of my career,” Evans said. “I’m honored to be representing my country when I step onto that court.”
Despite being the youngest member of the team, Stewart already has the most international experience in the group, helping the U.S. earn a gold medal in July as a member of the FIBA U-19 world championship team.
“I think for the most part I feel prepared because most of my coaches have been college coaches on some level, but I think it’s going to be different because the players will be much older than the college players I played with this past summer,” Stewart said. “The coaching staff, they’ve been coaching for a long time and have a lot of experience.”
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