Women's Basketball: Gonzaga looks for vengeance in Las Vegas

Gonzaga junior forward LeeAnne Wirth drives to the basket as the Bulldogs defeated the USF Dons 56-38 on Feb. 13. 

What makes a revenge story great is the satisfaction the end result grants the viewers after they’ve spent time investing in the characters involved and getting to know each of their stories.

Those who have dedicated themselves to Gonzaga women’s basketball this season hope to see nothing more than the team’s own story of revenge come to fruition next week in Las Vegas for the 2019-20 West Coast Conference Tournament. 

Last year’s tournament was nothing short of a bad omen for the Zags. The team came in as the No. 1 seed and was poised to win the WCC title for the second year in a row. But after a nailbiter, double-overtime victory against Saint Mary’s in the semifinal game that resulted in season-ending injuries for then-senior guard Laura Stockton and then-sophomore guard Jill Townsend, the banged-up GU team was overthrown by BYU and failed to retain the trophy.

So, seeing the Bulldogs heading into tournament play may leave an uneasy feeling in some Zags fans’ stomachs. But coming in the absence of clenching last year’s title, this year’s program has something to prove that no ranking could affect. 

“We don’t like to look ahead, but when we get the schedule at the beginning of the year, BYU is definitely the first game that you’re circling, especially after last year and the bad taste that it left in our mouth,” Townsend said before playing BYU at home earlier this season. “We know they’re players and what they want to do, and they know what we want to do, so it’s just a slugfest out there.”

The top-two seeds in the conference each automatically advance to play in a different semifinal game, which means that, along with University of San Diego, GU theoretically has the shortest path in its quest for WCC gold. 

But with the luxury of waiting until Monday to play its first game comes the uncertainty of not knowing the opponent among the four teams slated to play in the games leading up to the Zags’ first match. 

The most likely candidate is University of Portland, No. 4 in the conference after finishing the regular season with an 11-7 WCC record. The Pilots relied on strong scoring performances from a trio of Australian underclassmen, along with strong ball movement, to make their case as the fourth-best team in the WCC.   

Having just defeated UP in their last regular season game by 14 points, the Zags still don’t want to overlook them. But the Pilots may not be the most daunting opponent they’ll have the possibility of facing in the semifinal round.

That may come in the form of the No. 5 seed University of Pacific, home to first team All-WCC pick Valerie Higgins, a dynamic shooter and rebounder who has given the Zags trouble in the past.

In the two schools’ first matchup this season in Spokane, the Tigers lost by one point, buoyed by a 20-point and seven-rebound performance from Higgins.  

The Tigers were able to pressure GU late in that game, showing an ability to score when it matters, which is something head coach Lisa Fortier won’t overlook. 

“We talked about [that game] a little bit, but they are such a good team and we know how close that game was,” Fortier said. “Every time we play them, it’s a dogfight. They are very talented, so we didn’t have to say too much about that.”

Regardless of which team they face come Monday afternoon, there’s a reason why the Zags are the top seed in the conference and they’ve displayed it on the court time and time again. 

The team’s 17 wins in conference play this season ties a WCC record, and they’ve won those games by an average of 16.5 points. 

The Zags have also rebounded well since losing senior guard and second team All-WCC member Katie Campbell, who injured her left knee on Feb. 1. A consistent starter whose ability to get open and score from deep is not easily replaceable, in addition to her veteran experience.

And still, after losing against Saint Mary’s two games after Campbell was sidelined, the Zags went on to win five straight, including their last three matchups, which were all on the road, proving they can fight through adversity outside of The Kennel.

In weeks leading up to the WCC Tournament, GU has shown that the talented depth on its roster is no fluke. Previous role players, like freshman Kayleigh Truong and sophomore Melody Kempton have adjusted well when stepping into more significant roles.

“It just goes to show that we have team basketball,” Kempton said. “So, if one or two people aren’t playing how they usually do, we’ve shown that somebody can always pick it up.”

Junior forwards Jenn and LeeAnne Wirth  have continued their outstanding play down low on both sides of the court, with each of them averaging over 8.5 points per game and tallying more than 20 blocks apiece throughout the season.

Townsend capped off her standout regular season on a monthlong high note in February, when she dropped six double-digit scoring games to head into the WCC Tournament with a team-high 49.1 field goal percentage. She was named WCC Player of the Year this week.

If the Zags advance to the championship game on Tuesday, they’ll need every Bulldog to hold the same level of play they’ve been at recently.

BYU, last season’s WCC victors, are ranked third after a slightly down year that included two losses to GU by over 10 points. Still, nothing propels a team to play above its expectations quite like a rivalry, and no rivalry is more ripe in the WCC than the Cougars against the Zags.

“Being here all four years, I know that BYU is that big rivalry game, they definitely have some great players who can do their own things, and it’s always a great game for us to play in and it also challenges us,” senior guard Jessie Loera said.

The only other team in the WCC to sweep BYU this season is the second-seeded Toreros,  which need one win to potentially meet the Zags in the WCC Championship. 

On paper, the Toreros don’t look like they’d be best fitted to challenge the Zags for the title. But their tenacious and physical style of play on offense and defense has previously shown to rattle more talented opponents, such as BYU.

USD even gave the Bulldogs a hard time at The Kennel when it came to visit in January, holding the Zags to 29% shooting from 3-point range, while also mitigating offensive production in the paint and forcing 15 GU turnovers.

Even with the struggles that USD posed, the Zags pulled out an 11-point victory, going to show this year’s squad has what it takes to rise above adversity.

A good story of revenge comes from a substantial amount of adversity, so challenges GU has faced this year, like USD, is just part of the script. 

But if one quality about the Bulldogs proves they have what it takes to wrap up this season’s story with a WCC Championship, it’s their persistence, a trait all successful protagonists have.

Asher Ali is a staff writer.

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