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Gonzaga women hope to run past Oklahoma in NCAA Tournament

UPDATED: Fri., March 17, 2017, 8:43 p.m.

Head coach Lisa Fortier and the Gonzaga Bulldogs are 7-4 entering the start of West Coast Conference play. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)
Head coach Lisa Fortier and the Gonzaga Bulldogs are 7-4 entering the start of West Coast Conference play. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

SEATTLE – Come Saturday afternoon, Gonzaga will match its transition game against Oklahoma’s forbidding strength in the paint.

And that will decide the outcome of Saturday’s first-round NCAA women’s tournament game at Alaska Airlines Arena.

If only it were that simple.

Test

Washington State Cougars quarterback Luke Falk looks for the open man in the first half against USC on Friday at Martin Stadium in Pullman. Falk broke the Pac-12 record for completion with a pass to Tavares Martin in the second quarter. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State Cougars quarterback Luke Falk looks for the open man in the first half against USC on Friday at Martin Stadium in Pullman. Falk broke the Pac-12 record for completion with a pass to Tavares Martin in the second quarter. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

As Gonzaga senior Elle Tinkle said on Friday, “We have some physical players, too.”

Moments later, GU coach Lisa Fortier weighed in with the observation that Oklahoma’s guards aren’t exactly a bunch of plodders.

Earlier, her Oklahoma counterpart Sherri Coale said she expects a tough battle inside against GU forwards Jill Barta and Kiara Kudron.

Speaking about the entire GU team, Coale said all the right things.

“It’s actually been fun watching them on film because I appreciate the way that they play, I appreciate the way they are coached, and I appreciate the way they compete,” Coale said.

However, in order to compete on Saturday, the 11th-seeded Zags will need to do the following:

– Stay calm against Oklahoma’s 1-3-1 defense, a formation the Bulldogs haven’t seen in two years;

– Exploit their slight speed advantage in transition at both ends of the floor and not let OU slow the pace;

– Stay true to their team defensive philosophy on every possession against a patient OU offense.

– Rely on the explosiveness of Barta, who is peaking in the postseason.

GU also has a few intangibles on its side as it tries to advance to Monday’s second round against Washington or Montana State.

They include the momentum of an emphatic run through the West Coast Conference tournament in Las Vegas; its past success as an 11 seed; and a UW crowd that’s likely to root for an in-state team.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma is 22-9, but limping into the NCAAs with three losses in its last four games. The Sooners lost to second-ranked Baylor by 39 in their last regular-season game, then fell by 24 to West Virginia in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament.

Since then, Coale says the Sooners have “had a chance to regroup and reboot … and at the same time really look over the ways that we played and the things we wish we could have done better and have to do better.”

Gonzaga (26-6) played so well in Las Vegas that Fortier was ready to play the next day.

“I just hope that our team has realized that we’ve had some success doing the things that we’ve been working towards all year,” Fortier said.

For GU the biggest worries are OU’s size and its 1-3-1 zone. Between 6-foot-9 freshman Nancy Mulkey and stout 6-4 junior Vionise Pierre Louis, the Sooners are intimidating inside.

On the perimeter, GU point guard Laura Stockton said it’s important to “be patient with the basketball and not speed up.”

The Sooners gave up 68.6 points a game (compared to only 57.8 for GU), but Fortier says OU is “underrated defensively” because of the zone.

“They try to turn you over and fluster you. And if they don’t turn you over then they make you take a quick shot without a lot of rebounding and oftentimes it is kind of a one-and-done type of situation,” Fortier said.

At the other end, OU has six players who average at least seven points, but none more than 12.7. That kind of balanced scoring makes it difficult to ignore any one player, Fortier said.