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Gonzaga relishing improbable run

Gonzaga junior Elle Tinkle is used to watching Final Four play after her sister Joslyn made three of them while at Stanford. Now it's her turn to step up to help the Bulldogs advance when they take on No. 2 seed Tennessee in the Sweet 16 on Saturday. AP Photo/Timothy J. Gonzalez

SPOKANE -- This opportunity, to play deep into the NCAA tournament as a double-digit seed, is not a new one for the Gonzaga women's basketball team. It has one it more than any other women's team in tournament history.

And this opportunity, to play deep into the NCAA tournament as a double-digit seed 2 miles from campus, isn't a new one, either, for the Bulldogs. They reached the Elite Eight here in 2011.

But this opportunity, this season at No. 11, might not have seemed like it was going to happen for Gonzaga.

Kelly Graves, the coach who built this program into one of the nation's best mid-major programs, left last spring to take over at Oregon.

For the first time in 14 years, there was a new head coach on the bench, a new face of the program. Graves' longtime assistant, Lisa Fortier, 33, earned a shot at her first head-coaching job. Fortier came to Gonzaga at 2004 as the director of operations and returned as an assistant coach in 2007. The players went to the athletic director's office to lobby for Fortier.

"I didn't know how good we were going to be and as a first-time head coach, I think I tried to set myself up for success by keeping our goals to things that weren't necessarily measurable" Gonzaga head coach Lisa Fortier

"Lisa is no stranger to this program and no stranger to any of us," said junior forward Elle Tinkle. "She's invested into this program for short of a decade and has had huge roles in our development and our recruitment. She knew what it was going to take to win and continue to be as successful as this program had been under coach Graves. So the transition was pretty seamless."

Fortier's first season was certainly a good one, with the Bulldogs winning an 11th consecutive West Coast Conference regular-season title and going 26-7 heading into Saturday's Sweet 16 matchup against No. 2 seed Tennessee (ESPN/WatchESPN, 6:30 ET).

But there were bumps along the way. The Bulldogs' early season play was marked by inconsistency. One of the Bulldogs' top players, senior forward Lindsay Sherbert, sustained a knee injury that took her out of the lineup for most of the middle part of the season. And there was a late-season stretch in which Gonzaga lost 3 of 5, including the semifinal game of the West Coast Conference semifinals to BYU, needing an at-large berth to get into the tournament. Then came the two upset NCAA wins, first against No. 6 George Washington and then taking out No. 2 Oregon State in Corvallis.

"We had a bumpy start, not necessarily with win-loss record, but with the way we were playing," Fortier said. "But I think we are finally starting to hit our stride."

Fortier had indeed recruited the players she had on her roster. Still, she knew there would be a transition to new leadership and she wasn't entirely sure how it was going to go.

"I didn't know how good we were going to be and as a first-time head coach, I think I tried to set myself up for success by keeping our goals to things that weren't necessarily measurable," Fortier said. "Things like working hard every day and competing, putting our time in off the court.

"But as a competitor, I wanted to win championships."

Tennessee coach Holly Warlick knows Fortier's path better than most. She walked in the footsteps of the winningest women's basketball coach, Pat Summit.

"There was a system in place, and she was a part of it," Warlick said of Fortier. "She was a part of all this, a part of this building, a part of the recruiting, a part of the teaching. So I'm not surprised. I applaud Gonzaga for moving her up into the next seat. Not too many universities and programs do that. They always think you have to go and get a head coach. Well, that's not necessarily so when you have somebody who has a love for the program, who has lived it."

Gonzaga is looking straight at Goliath, the Tennessee Lady Vols, who have made all of the 34 NCAA tournaments that have been contested and have reached the Elite Eight 26 times.

The Bulldogs, meanwhile, are playing to the verge of the Final Four in this building, as they did four years ago. And they have a legacy in this tournament of playing up to the moment.

"A lot of people say there is so much pressure," said senior forward Sunny Greinacher. "But it's a basketball game. It's not pressure. It's just going out and enjoying the moment."

That can be easier said than done. Tinkle knows as well as anyone about this part of the tournament first-hand. Her older sister Joslyn played in three Final Fours at Stanford. She was in the stands as a high school junior back in 2011 when Stanford defeated Gonzaga in the regional final.

Her father. Wayne. is the men's head coach at Oregon State and sat behind the Gonzaga bench last week wearing neutral gray (with his kids' numbers embroidered on the back), rooting for his daughter and her team rather than the school that hired him.

"Yeah, I need to have a word with somebody about that because he got more screen time than most of us did," Elle Tinkle joked. "He's a little bit of a camera hog, so ..."

Tinkle has taken on an expanded role with the knee injury to Lindsay Sherbert that sidelined her for 14 games in the middle of the season. Tinkle, a junior, has started 28 games this season and is the team's third-leading scorer at 11.9 points a game.

"My sister is no rookie to the NCAA tournament, so the biggest piece of advice she's given me is just to remain confident and be patient with this whole process, because obviously we are playing on a much grander scale now and against teams that are more competitive. It's a natural tendency to go out there and do something right away. I just need to let the game come to me."

It's funny how things work out. Spokane wasn't even supposed to host this regional. It originally belonged to Sacramento, which pulled out because of a scheduling conflict (four nights of Garth Brooks concerts) at Sleep Train Arena.

Spokane, which has hosted four regionals since 2008, stepped in last June to take the spot.

"It's a twist of fate that we are happy to be on the good side of," Fortier said. "It's kind of a happy accident for us. We'll take it."