The West Coast Conference isn’t a pit stop for the weak.
In previous years, the WCC was often dismissed and lost in the mix of the nation’s long list of forgettable midmajor conferences. But Gonzaga coach Lisa Fortier knows she’s in for a tough two months of conference play this season against some of the country’s most underrated teams.
“Every single time I look at the scouting report, I know that I’ll be thinking, ‘Oh great. How are we going to stop this kid?’ and, ‘What are we going to do against this set?’ ” she said. “It’s a grind.”
Saturday’s 77-66 win over Loyola Marymount epitomized the kind of grind that Fortier expects to see this time of year.
The victory allowed Gonzaga (11-4, 4-0), the last undefeated WCC team, control of the top spot in the standings after sharing first place with LMU (11-4, 3-1).
“They’re a good team. We knew that,” Fortier said of the Lions. “I know that not everybody knows our conference all that well, but we knew. We knew who they had coming in and who they had coming up.”
Who they had coming in – not Cheyanne Wallace, LMU’s top scorer. Wallace was averaging 17.3 points in 13 games before she was sidelined against Santa Clara on Thursday for an ankle injury. She was in street clothes limping along the sidelines at the McCarthey Athletic Center on Saturday.
Who they had coming up – the WCC Player of the Week Gabby Green, who caused a lot of damage against the Zags, particularly in the first half.
Gonzaga guard Chandler Smith powered an initial 14-0 run in the first quarter, scoring six of her 15 first-half points within 3 minutes of tipoff.
LMU missed its first 10 field goals before finally getting on the board with a layup roughly 5 minutes into the quarter.
The Zags built a comfortable 19-4 lead until the Lions started feeding the ball to Green. The 6-foot-2 guard challenged the Zags inside and dropped LMU’s second field goal of the game that started the Lions’ 14-0 run.
Green helped with five consecutive points to pull LMU within a point of Gonzaga in the second quarter.
“It kind of got a little fire under us,” Smith said. “It made us a little bit more gritty.”
The Zags used a tough 2-2-1 press and forced the Lions to two shot-clock violations before the end of the half. The Zags capitalized on the turnovers with Jill Barta’s three-point play and a trio of 3s.
Barta hit the last of the 3s with a shot from the top of the arc that gave Gonzaga a 35-22 lead with 3:48 left in the second.
The Lions came back from the half with a relentless will to shoot from distance. Senior guard Makenzie Cast hit five of her six 3-pointers in the second half, including three consecutive shots that cut Gonzaga’s lead to 46-42.
Cast went 4 for 4 from 3-point range in the third, enough to finally get the Zags to notice her.
“She kind of got loose a little bit in transition,” Smith said. “We really dialed in on her in the fourth quarter especially and kept her closed off.”
Gonzaga allowed Cast three opportunities to make the long shot in the fourth. She hit one more at the top of the quarter to get LMU within seven points.
She attempted two more 3s in the final minute that could have narrowed Gonzaga’s lead to three, but she missed both.
LMU hung around and hit four free throws to narrow Gonzaga’s lead to 69-65 with 1:34 left, but the Lions didn’t get any closer.
Gonzaga forward Zykera Rice hit a jumper and the Zags sank four consecutive free shots to pull away from the Lions for good.
“Just to have that win under our belts going into the next week, it gives (us) a lot more confidence,” Smith said.
Smith led a trio of Zags into double figures. She piled up a team-high 19 points and seven rebounds, and went 10 for 10 at the line.
Junior forward Barta followed with 16 points on 6-of-13 shooting, five boards and five steals before leaving the game in the final minutes because of fouls.
Rice scored 14 points, shooting 58.3 percent from the field (7 of 12), and had four rebounds.
Green led the Lions with 20 points on 7-of-18 shooting and seven boards.
Gonzaga heads to Portland next week to play the Pilots on Thursday.
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