Commentary: An ode to Gonzaga women's basketball and adversity

Gonzaga junior forward Jill Townsend drives to the basket against USF on Feb. 13 in the McCarthey Athletic Center.

This year, Gonzaga women’s basketball proved GU is a basketball school — not a men’s basketball school.

Reaching a program-best top-10 ranking and finishing with the best record in school history, as well as likely earning the highest NCAA Tournament seed in program history, will certainly do plenty.

Not to mention head coach Lisa Fortier made the Naismith Coach of the Year shortlist after taking over a program which its former coach openly suggested to the Spokesman-Review after leaving the job had “reached its ceiling.” 

Taking her team to the peak of the college game in six years, she always told her players she was willing to “go to war for them,” and that felt apparent just watching her coach. Her high-heel stomps on the sideline still resonate to this day.

But accolades only do so much. It still feels like the consummation of those achievements lies in March, which is an unfinished conclusion because of circumstances beyond any of our control.

In covering this team over the past year, I’ve learned some aspects of women’s sports come with a few unwarranted vestiges of patriarchy. A lack of notoriety and frequent comparisons to a men’s game that is different not in quality, but in spirit are just a couple of them.

But the Zags didn’t expect immediate appreciation for the historic things they’ve achieved. Instead, they chose to earn it. By the end of the season, as they drew closer to the top 10, the student section was filling up for every home women’s game, with casual fans taking notice. 

A deep run in the tournament would have made that respect concrete. It would have been a validation of years of work that, in the men’s game, probably wouldn’t have been necessary — but I guess that’s beyond the point.

After the loss to Portland in the West Coast Conference Tournament, which eventually became this team’s last game of the season, the raw emotion at the postgame news conference was palpable. 

Junior forward Jenn Wirth, with tears in her eyes, not because this game was ultimately all that consequential — after all, the Zags would likely still be announced as a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament next week — but because losing of any sort ran contrary to the way she and her team approached every game. 

Junior guard Jill Townsend, with a fiery anger building in her eyes as she couldn’t sit still. She fouled out late in the game and had to watch the conclusion from the sideline. For a player who hates to leave any loose ball or possession to chance, sitting and waiting for what’s next never worked well with her.

Jenn’s twin sister, LeeAnne Wirth, with the same frustration after fouls hindered a nearly impeccable defensive effort in that last game. She had plenty to look forward to in March after a year when she stepped into the spotlight as a pillar of her team’s identity and refused to crumble.

Even though the Zags thought they would be playing as a top-four seed in Spokane the next week, that didn’t matter. Dominance was the only matter of importance. It was ingrained in their DNA.

But the beauty of GU women’s basketball goes beyond the star players speaking to the media. It extends to the last woman on the bench.

Chemistry was never an issue. Every player talked about playing for each other, which is admittedly more easily said than done. But it also showed on the court. No one wanted to let each other down, and it elevated everyone’s play in previously unimaginable ways.

Sophomore forward Melody Kempton outmuscling much taller posts for offensive rebounds and then scoring over them, much to their dismay. Freshmen guards Kayleigh and Kaylynne Truong zipping passes across the court to each other and growing in confidence every game. A bench that never wavered from the fire and energy the team’s starters began with.

There was no questioning this team’s commitment to the ultimate goal, or to each other.

Luckily for them, they will form the core of a team next year that may be even better than this year’s. But its two seniors, who will likely never get to play again, will feel the brunt of this decision.

Senior guard Katie Campbell had already dealt with enough disappointments this season. She was arguably her team’s best player until her season-ending knee injury incited the same kind of sadness that all sports fans have been feeling as of late — something impossible to avoid but should never happen in the first place.

And fellow senior guard Jessie Loera, who can no longer play in front of her massive family that Fortier described as “the whole city of Moses Lake.” The pride they had in her was easy to see for every member of the audience when her family all took the court on Senior Day. Even if the tournament was to be played without audiences, it was doubtful that the entirety of her biggest fans could’ve made it. 

But even without Campbell and Loera, there are few teams in the college game that are returning as many dynamic players as GU. Redshirt freshman forward Kylee Griffen, transfer senior guard Cierra Walker and freshman forward Eliza Hollingsworth will all be stepping onto the court at GU for the first time next year, and another highly touted freshman class will only add to that wealth of talent. 

There was unfinished business before the tourney was abruptly cut short, but now that unfinished business has to carry over to next season.

The near future is the murkiest it’s been for all of us. I think that’s incredibly apparent now.   

Yet I know for certain this team’s future is anything but that.

Connor Gilbert is a sports editor. Follow him on Twitter: @ConnorJGilbert.

Connor Gilbert is a sports editor. Follow him on Twitter: @ConnorJGilbert.

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