LAS VEGAS – The Gonzaga women haven’t forgotten what happened the last time they visited the Orleans Arena.
Last March, the Zags fell to Santa Clara in their first game of the West Coast Conference tournament in Las Vegas. It was the second year in a row that Gonzaga had not at least reached the conference championship after making it to the final game for eight straight years.
But the real sting came when the Bulldogs didn’t receive an NCAA tournament bid – the first time they had been kept out of the tournament since 2008.
GU head coach Lisa Fortier said her 2017 team is quite a bit different than the fifth-seeded Zags she had last year. The rest of the team seems to agree, and they don’t plan on leaving the arena next week emptyhanded.
“I think we’re a new team this year,” redshirt sophomore Jill Barta said after practice on Tuesday. “We’re ready to go down and … show people what we’re made of.”
Well, they’re at least made up of a few more bodies than they were before.
Four of Gonzaga’s current 13 players showed up to the arena last March in street clothes. Elle Tinkle and Emma Wolfram watched their team from the sidelines after they both suffered season-ending knee injuries. Last season’s redshirts, Chandler Smith and Makenlee Williams, were also out of the tournament. They were ineligible to play because of NCAA transfer rules.
That opening game against Santa Clara was also Kiara Kudron’s first time back on the court after missing seven games because of a wrist injury.
“Coming back and having that first loss was kind of disappointing and sad because we didn’t really know where we were going to end up,” Kudron said.
The loss took them to the National Invitation Tournament, where the Zags fell in the second round to Utah. This year, the Zags are looking to win the WCC championship and to get what could be the only NCAA tournament bid in the conference – at least that’s what Fortier is assuming.
But just as Fortier has said all year, the Zags are taking it one game at a time. The quest for a championship win starts at noon Friday when the Zags take on ninth-seeded Pacific after the Tigers eliminated No. 8 Pepperdine on Thursday.
Gonzaga’s biggest threats sit just below them in the regular-season conference standings. The top-seeded Zags (23-6, 14-4) were followed by BYU (19-10, 13-5) and Saint Mary’s (18-11, 13-5), which were tied for second in the WCC and sit only one game behind Gonzaga. Last year’s WCC champion San Francisco (17-12, 11-7) fell three games behind the Bulldogs this season and took the fourth seed.
The Bulldogs barely pulled out wins over Saint Mary’s in both meetings this season, including their Feb. 11 matchup in the McCarthey Athletic Center when the Zags topped the Gaels 59-58.
BYU, which took the second seed from Saint Mary’s thanks to a better overall record, split the series with Gonzaga this year. The Zags toppled BYU 87-52 in early February but couldn’t press repeat later in the month. They fell to BYU 71-63 in the season finale last week on the Cougars’ home court.
The Zags would only meet BYU on the Orleans Arena court in the championship game on Tuesday.
“It’s always fun to play BYU,” Fortier said about their conference rival earlier this season. “They’re one of the best teams in the West Coast,” because the Cougars “have some very talented players that are different than other talented players that we’ve played this year.”
BYU junior guard Cassie Broadhead was the conference’s top scorer this season, averaging18.3 points in 29 games. She is closely followed by USF’s Rachel Howard, who had an average of 18.2 points.
BYU’s defense tops the charts, too. Power forward Kalani Purcell leads the WCC on the glass (10.5 rebounds per game), is third in blocks (1.2) and has the second-most steals in the conference (2.4). Her teammate Makenzi Pulsipher also averaged 2.4 steals per game.
But Fortier said she is ready to face any team that gets in the way of a seventh conference title for the Zags in 11 years. If there are nerves, it’s because she wants her team to remain atop the conference and be the last team standing on Tuesday.
“I’m an overpreparer and a little bit paranoid just by who I am. And I’m a competitor,” she said. “So we’re never going to go down there and think … ‘Let’s just get to the championship,’ or ‘Let’s just get to the semis.’ We want to win.”
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