Zykera Rice might be the only one who thinks this is just another ballgame.
The Gonzaga junior forward has faced Washington State before, but she doesn’t buy into the notion that little GU has anything to prove against a bigger school.
“No, we’re all just basketball players,” Rice said after practice Tuesday at the Kennel.
For almost everyone else, there’s a lot on the line in Wednesday night’s big nonconference game in Pullman.
Bragging rights are a given. Junior forward Chandler Smith, an Okanogan product with friends on the WSU roster, said it best: “We’re good friends, but on the court, we want to crush you,” Smith said.
There are other incentives.
For the Cougars, it’s a chance to add to a four-game winning streak and get a little payback for last year’s 79-61 loss in Spokane that also cost leading scorer Borislava Hristova the rest of her season with a foot injury.
For the Bulldogs, it’s their last major test before West Coast Conference play and their best chance to boost their RPI, which languishes at 140.
Lose this one and GU will have little chance for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid should it fall short in the WCC tournament in March. The WCC is having a down year, ranking 15th in conference RPI.
But no one was thinking that far ahead on Tuesday. GU coach Lisa Fortier was more concerned with WSU’s zone, “which isn’t easy to figure out.”
Fortier might get some help in that area, as point guard Laura Stockton practiced on Tuesday and “is close” to returning to action as she recovers from a minor shoulder injury suffered on Nov. 22 in the Play4Kay Showcase in Las Vegas.
“It’s a game-time decision,” Fortier said.
The Bulldogs (4-3) are coming off a pair of confidence-boosting home wins over Eastern Washington (69-45) and Portland State (91-52). They dominated the boards and feasted on turnovers created by their half-court trap.
That probably won’t happen against the Cougars (5-4), who are coming off their most complete game of the season, an 85-63 home win Monday over Saint Louis.
Despite a flu outbreak that left two players sidelined and four others weakened, the Cougars turned up the pressure on both ends of the court against the Billikens. The wire-to-wire win was paced again by Hristova (who averages 17.9 points and 4.4 rebounds) and Alexys Swedlund (7.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg).
Asked if her players were looking past Saint Louis and toward GU, WSU coach June Daugherty sidestepped the question.
“This was a great step for us,” said Daugherty, whose strength of schedule is the ninth toughest in the nation. “This was the first time we went to the locker room with that type of lead (13 points). … We just tried to come and play better and not let down.”
The Cougars’ biggest challenge will be GU forward Jill Barta, who won WCC Player of the Week honors after averaging 24.5 points and nine rebounds against EWU and PSU.
WSU leads the all-time series 18-8, including a 10-2 advantage in Pullman. The last time the teams met at Beasley, the Cougs won 55-48 in December 2015.