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Transfers Makenlee Williams, Chandler Smith have found right fit with Gonzaga women

Gonzaga guard Chandler Smith, left, came to the Bulldogs from Nebraska. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga guard Chandler Smith, left, came to the Bulldogs from Nebraska. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

SEATTLE – Three years ago, Makenlee Williams was knocking down 3-pointers and heading for a standout basketball career at Utah State.

Chandler Smith was a senior at Brewster High School, dreaming of playing at Nebraska and returning with a degree in agribusiness.

But there they were in Spokane on Selection Monday, two transfers who found the right fit at Gonzaga.

Fittingly, they sat next to each other as Gonzaga’s name appeared on the television screen.

All the detours, the injuries, the second-guessing didn’t matter on Monday. Both were in the right place, preparing for a first-round NCAA Tournament date with Oklahoma on Saturday at American Airlines Arena.

“That makes it all worth it,” said Williams, a senior who gave up a year of eligibility to play for a champion.

Now her career will end on the big stage. Smith, a redshirt sophomore, will be back for two more years, happy to be closer to home.

Growing up in a cattle ranch north of Brewster, Smith was the Washington 1A Player of the Year in 2013 and 2014. A four-star recruit and ranked as the 18th-best wing in the country, she considered offers from Gonzaga, Baylor, Arizona State and Oregon State before settling on the Cornhuskers.

“GU was definitely on the radar for me,” said Smith, who played as a true freshman for Nebraska in 2014-15. Sidelined early in the season with an injury, she played in the last 18 games of the season.

Smith’s last game at Nebraska came in the NCAA Tournament against Syracuse, when she played 21 minutes and recorded four points and four rebounds.

But by that time she realized that Nebraska “wasn’t a good fit.” Meanwhile, Lisa Fortier succeeded Kelly Graves as head coach at GU.

“Lisa recruited me at GU, and I knew I wanted to play for her,” said Smith, who knew she’s pay a price for transferring.

That was paid last year with a redshirt season that Smith spent on developing her game. A versatile 6-footer with a good 3-point shot, Smith has played in all 32 games while averaging 17 minutes, 4.8 points and almost three rebounds.

Better yet, she’s doing it in front of 5,000-plus fans at every GU home game.

“Every single time you go on the court, you have so many fans,” marveled Smith, whose only problem now is to find enough NCAA tickets for her family and friends.

Williams, a state champion at Syracuse, Utah, made an instant splash at Utah State. As a true freshman, she started 27 games, averaged 7.2 points and led the Western Athletic Conference in 3-point shooting accuracy at 42.3 percent.

A year later, she battled through injury to start 20 games and average a team-high 15.9 points.

But in 2014-15, while Gonzaga was on its way to a berth in the Sweet 16, Williams quit the Aggies’ program, citing personal reasons.

“It wasn’t the right fit for me,” said Williams, who knew after watching one GU game in the Kennel that she wanted to play for the Zags.

Like Smith, she’s played in all 32 games, averaging 14.4 minutes while shooting 35 percent from 3-point range. Her 38 makes from beyond the arc are second to Jill Barta’s 40.

Immediately after Gonzaga was paired with Oklahoma, Williams went straight to her phone – to check out the Sooners. Her mother Tammie, a big sports fan, gave her the lowdown on Oklahoma before asking about tickets.

“This is a big moment,” said Williams, who also treasures the win over Stanford and the West Coast Conference title the Zags just won in Las Vegas.

“Everything I’ve done has paid off with this moment,” Williams said.