The box score may say Gonzaga won 78-55 over a winless University of Tennessee-Martin team, but don’t say the Bulldogs had it easy.
GU had to grind their way past the Skyhawks on the wings of a strong second-half effort to seal the game, their final tune-up ahead of a huge road game against Stanford on Sunday.
The Zags (2-0) started off shooting hot, gaining an early 11-point lead early in the first quarter, but the Skyhawks (0-3) weren’t going to go away without a fight. They responded by shooting 70% in the next quarter with four threes and a procession of trips to the charity stripe, outscoring GU 23-20 to bring the lead down to 8.
"Defensively, that second quarter we were a little casual, unenthused,” coach Lisa Fortier said. “We were just kind of running around with our players, and they didn't have to work for anything."
Some introspection at halftime led to a more focused defensive effort to close the game, and a 22-11 scoring margin in a strong third quarter put GU firmly ahead. The offense remained consistent, but the Zags also held the Skyhawks to just five field goals in the second half.
"We talked a lot in the locker room about that second quarter," junior guard Jill Townsend said. "We talked about how the highlights aren't going to work, no matter who we play. And they [UT Martin] are a really good team, really good program. We talked about tightening up. In the second half, I thought we executed what we talked about at halftime."
A 17-13 fourth quarter sealed the deal for the Zags, bringing the lead to 23 to finish the game. As has become a pattern in the young season, the Bulldogs abused their size advantage to dominate in the paint, with Jenn Wirth again leading the charge. Jenn Wirth scored 17 points for the second game in a row, and LeeAnne Wirth pitched in 9, including some crucial scores in the third to catalyze a 7-0 Zags run.
“They didn’t have any answer for her,” Fortier said of Jenn Wirth. “They tried to double-team her, they tried to front, but she was posted up strong. She’s got such a great touch, and when she can work for good position she’s hard to stop.”
That inside dominance allowed the Bulldogs’ guards to tee off from beyond the arc. Katie Campbell and Kayleigh Truong combined to go 4 for 6 from three, continuing a pattern of improvement from last season’s shooting woes.
The Zags’ depth continued to help them grind past another opponent as well; six Zags scored at least eight points, and every player in the rotation played at least ten minutes.
GU now turns its attention to a high-profile matchup with No. 3 Stanford in Palo Alto on Sunday, a year after an upset over the Cardinal in Spokane that had program-shifting implications. The Zags have won at Maples Pavilion before in 2016, but this looks to be the most challenging game of the season so far.