After Monday night’s loss to Oregon State, Gonzaga women’s basketball’s head coach Lisa Fortier was at a loss for words as to how best describe her team.
“The way that the team has,” she paused. “Gosh, I wish I had better words to describe it. That’s what the writers are for, you guys find the words I meant [and] write what I am trying to say.”
Gritty. Hardened to adversity. Resilient. Tough. Relentless. Those could be the words Fortier was looking for to describe a group she already proclaimed to be her favorite team she had ever been part of. But maybe there just aren’t words for what this team has done.
In a season that has been dubbed an “emotional rollercoaster” by players and coaches, the GU women showed no quit.
Last March, coming off a record-setting run through the West Coast Conference and a NCAA Tournament berth, Jill Barta, the conference’s player of the year and GU’s leading scorer and rebounder, decided to forgo her season, leaving Fortier and the Zags without their top player.
“We’ve gone through a lot the last couple weeks, but I would tell you that the resiliency started about this time last year,” Fortier said. “We had some stuff come up, we thought the team was going to look a little different than it did and adversity started there.”
When the 2018-19 season rolled around, Fortier’s group didn’t miss a beat.
It defeated then-No. 7 Stanford and held tough against Notre Dame, then the top team in the nation, performances Fortier noted with pride as she reflected on the season.
“It’s the body of work — just like your ranking or your seed isn’t the biggest thing — it’s what you’ve done,” Fortier said.
GU, powered by its nonconference success, rose through the AP and USA Today rankings, gaining in poll position nearly every week. At their peak, the Zags reached the No. 11 spot, the highest ranking in program history.
After taking some licks from BYU in the regular season and the WCC Tournament came around, all eyes were on a third game between the conference’s top teams.
Before GU’s redemption opportunity, senior point guard Laura Stockton — a starter of three years — and second-leading scorer Jill Townsend suffered severe leg injuries within minutes of each other during GU’s double-overtime semifinal victory against Saint Mary’s.
The injuries to Stockton and Townsend would not only end each player’s WCC tournament run, but their respective seasons as well.
Less than 24 hours later, an emotionally fatigued GU team took the court against BYU with its focus on basketball. That is until Director of Athletics Mike Roth removed Fortier from the game in the final minutes of the eventual loss, so the coach could be at the side of her brother, who soon after died due to complications from muscular dystrophy.
GU had now been run through the emotional gantlet and a season which had largely been deemed the Zags best ever, could not possibly reach its potential.
With 10 days between the WCC Championship game and the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, GU had to recover emotionally and physically, fill the holes of Stockton and Townsend’s absences and prepare for a 12th-seeded Arkansas Little Rock team, which many pundits selected as a candidate to upset the Zags.
Not a single person would’ve faulted the GU women if they tossed in the towel on 2019. Excuses were abundant, outs were easy to find, but that just wasn’t going to happen, not with this team.
Instead, with Stockton on the sideline, Townsend surprising the team in Corvallis prior to the first game and a commemorative “HM” for Fortier’s brother Hayden Mispley sewed onto each GU jersey, just inches away from the player’s hearts, the Zags did not blink.
The Bulldogs took care of business against Little Rock, defeating the Trojans 68-51, propelled by an emphatic 21-2 first quarter.
“We didn’t talk about doing this for Hayden, or doing this for Jill or Laura,” Fortier said after the win. “It’s known and everybody is going to continue to do everything they can for each other.”
Even in what would eventually be GU’s final game of the season Monday night, the Zags fought with the higher-seeded Beavers for all 40 minutes. Senior Zykera Rice, a career 14.3 percent 3-point shooter, drilled a pair of 3s and junior Jessie Loera hit a 3-pointer of her own to keep OSU on edge, before succumbing 76-70.
“I’m really proud of our team,” Fortier said after the game. “They gave everything they had. It’s been a really screwed up week for us at a really bad time and they didn’t care. All they cared about was each other, how they could best execute the game plan and best find a way to make our team successful.”
As the season ended, so too did the careers of three All-WCC performers in Rice, Stockton and Chandler Smith. With them a total of 336 games, nearly 3,000 points and a wealth of leadership experience leaves GU’s program.
Before speaking about her seniors, Fortier took a drink of water, saying, “Just give me a second, I got to not cry.”
She praised the trio for carrying the team on and off the court, the historic season behind them and the highest ranking, tournament seed and best RPI in program history. Fortier said those accomplishments were because of Smith, Stockton and Rice.
Through tears, junior Katie Campbell described the senior group as phenomenal.
“You want to go out there and play for them because you know they are going to play for you all the time and you couldn’t ask for a tougher group,” Campbell said.
Like the team as a whole, Fortier struggled to find the words to best describe her seniors. Ultimately, she concluded with an impossible desire shared by GU fans everywhere: the chance to run it back once more.
“These three, along with everybody back in the locker room, I would battle with any day, any time,” Fortier said. “Bring them all back and we will do it all over again.”
Ian Davis-Leonard is a sports editor. Follow him on Twitter: @IanDavisLeonard.