Gonzaga needed all the luck it could get this season.
Even before the season started, head coach Lisa Fortier was down a potential starter. Redshirt senior Emma Wolfram was out for the entire season after undergoing surgery for a recurring knee injury.
Then came Laura Stockton’s shoulder injury in late November that kept the starting point guard out of four consecutive games, two of which were losses.
Next was Jill Barta’s ankle tweak against Washington State on Dec. 6. Barta, who was named West Coast Conference Player of the Year this season, was out for just one game – a narrow 52-50 loss to UNLV.
Starting guard Emma Stach was next. She suffered a mild concussion against UNLV that sidelined her for two games.
Despite some early challenges this season, the Zags persevered, with a 7-4 record in nonconference games.
Just before the start of conference play at the end of December, Fortier finally had all of her starters back in the lineup. Reporters had asked Fortier if she was relieved that Gonzaga’s lineup was finally whole again. She quickly bent down and rapped her knuckles on the wood floor – her subtle way of warding off any other bad luck.
That seemed to have worked.
Following the loss to UNLV, Gonzaga went on to win 15 consecutive games – 13 against WCC teams – before falling in their second meeting with Saint Mary’s on Feb. 10. It was Gonzaga’s only West Coast Conference loss to go with 17 conference wins – a WCC record.
“We talked about it, wanting to be the first team – only team hopefully – to do that. And it’s a good accomplishment for these guys,” Fortier said. “It just shows that throughout an entire season against league opponents who know you like the back of their hand, you have to be good night in and night out and find a way to be scrappy and tough. And we’ve done that.”
Now the Zags hope to take that resilience into the WCC Tournament, which began on Thursday at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
Top-seeded Gonzaga received a bye and will go straight to the quarterfinals on Friday.
If the Zags win the WCC championship and earn their automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, they are expected to be seeded low.
Early brackets on ESPN predict Gonzaga will be seeded 12th and will play North Carolina State in a group of four teams at Stanford. College Sports Madness has Gonzaga as an 11 seed, playing against South Florida in a foursome hosted by Florida State.
If the Zags fail to take home the title next week, they’ll have more challenges to overcome. Without an automatic bid, the Zags will likely have to rely on luck for a second consecutive trip to the tournament.
Mid-major conferences like the WCC are more often than not left uncertain about whether or not their teams did well enough in the regular season to earn the conference more than one bid. Fortier said she thinks the Zags did enough this season to receive an at-large bid if they don’t win three games in Las Vegas.
“I’d like to think with our body of work and what we’ve done – a lot of our losses were with a lot of injuries – that the committee could look at that if we didn’t win down in Vegas,” Fortier said.
But it might not be enough.
The selection committee most often refers to a team’s rating percentage index (RPI to help determine which 32 teams without an automatic bid it will bring to the tournament. Gonzaga is 39th in the RPI, the highest for the Bulldogs this season, and is 44th in the Sagarin ratings.
Saint Mary’s is the only other WCC team to crack 100, finishing the season at 74th in the RPI. Portland has the lowest RPI in the conference, coming in at 316th out of 349 Division I teams.
The WCC’s underperformance this season could cost Gonzaga an at-large bid, but Gonzaga’s nonconference opponents could also cause some issues.
Gonzaga had just one game against a team ranked in the top 50 in the RPI this season – DePaul, which downed Gonzaga 88-71 in the Play4Kay Showcase. As of Monday, the Blue Demons are 23rd in RPI.
Gonzaga’s schedule is ranked 132nd in the country, and falls in the middle of WCC teams. It’s a vast improvement from last year’s rating that had Gonzaga’s schedule strength 149th.
Fortier said she isn’t sure if the Zags will need to win all three games in Las Vegas to get into the tournament this season, but she’s not willing to take a chance with the selection committee.
“Every year, whether we’re a 20 RPI or not, we’re just not sure,” Fortier said. “We really just want to put an exclamation point on a great season and be in charge of our destiny.”
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