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Gonzaga women dial up defensive pressure in win at UNLV

UPDATED: Sat., Nov. 17, 2018, 10:48 p.m.

Gonzaga University women’s basketball team gathers at center court during Fan Fest on Oct. 13. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga University women’s basketball team gathers at center court during Fan Fest on Oct. 13. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
By W.G. Ramirez For The Spokesman-Review

LAS VEGAS – Gonzaga women’s basketball coach Lisa Fortier said she felt her Bulldogs were disjointed for much of the first half against UNLV.

And yet, the Bulldogs (4-0) were anything but, dominating the Lady Rebels on the stat sheet en route to a 70-59 nonconference victory to remain undefeated.

“I didn’t think it felt like everything was working,” Fortier said. “And then I would look down and we hadn’t turned the ball over, we hadn’t taken a ton of bad shots. I kept thinking we were out of sorts offensively.”

On the contrary, as the Bulldogs hit 29 of 67 from the field, committed a season-low 10 turnovers and outscored UNLV’s reserves 29-21. The Bulldogs shot 43.3 percent from the field compared to UNLV’s 34 percent, while forcing 16 turnovers, and scoring 21 points off of the Lady Rebels’ miscues.

Gonzaga had four players in double figures led by Zykera Rice, Jessie Loera and Jill Townsend with 11 points each. Katie Campbell added 10.

For the 11 returnees from last year’s team, the Bulldogs exacted revenge for a 52-50 loss last December in Spokane.

“I know a lot of us seniors have been waiting to play them again,” said Rice, who also finished with seven rebounds, three assists and a blocked shot. “They pressure a lot, they play really good defense, they have great athletes, so our main focus was to make sure we were running our plays.”

Which they did, closing the first half with a 12-2 run after falling behind briefly by two, to take a 34-27 lead into halftime. The teams traded baskets and small runs in the third quarter, and the Lady Rebels eventually cut the lead to four on a La Tecia Smith 3-pointer. But Loera answered with a 3-pointer for the Zags, who never looked back.

UNLV was led by Katie Powell, who scored 16 and was the only Lady Rebel in double figures.

UNLV, which was picked to finish second in the Mountain West, struggled to score in the paint without former Gonzaga recruit Paris Strawther. The senior forward, who broke a finger during pregame warm-ups in Irvine, had surgery on her left pinkie and is expected to miss at least two weeks.

Gonzaga, which improved to 18-26 against current Mountain West teams, had a 37-36 advantage on the glass and outscored the Rebels 36-22 in the paint. The Zags have outscored opponents 138-84 in the paint.

Gonzaga has predicated its defensive success with a knack for creating turnovers. Between their full-court press or half-court sets, the Bulldogs are averaging 12 steals per game and forcing more than 20 turnovers per contest.

“I didn’t want our players thinking too much about a revenge situation. You don’t want them to be too hyped up,” Fortier said. “We just wanted to focus on getting better and being tougher. And so, instead of focusing the fact we didn’t beat these guys last time, we wanted to focus on the reasons, and that was rebounding.”

Townsend and Campbell continued their onslaught off the bench. Both were efficient inside and on the perimeter, victimizing every defender. The blue-collar work between Townsend and Campbell kept the seemingly better conditioned Bulldogs with fresh legs, no matter who was on the floor.

“Coming from the bench, you get feel for the game, how it’s going, you get to see early what’s open and what your team needs,” Townsend said. “We just try to fill in the spots that our team’s lacking at that point. Just seeing what we need to be successful and try to fill that in as best we can.”

Gonzaga returns to the court on Thursday, when it plays Notre Dame in the Vancouver (British Columbia) Showcase at noon.

W.G. Ramirez is a freelance reporter in Las Vegas and the Southern Nevada correspondent for the Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at @WillieGRamirez

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