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Best is yet to come: Gonzaga women must take care of business at WCC Tournament in hopes of hosting NCAA rounds

There were a lot of cheers Saturday at the McCarthey Athletic Center.

Senior Zykera Rice drew one of the biggest after the Zags clinched the outright West Coast Conference regular-season title and the top seed in the postseason tournament.

“We’re not done yet,” Rice told an eager crowd of 6,000.

Far from it. With a 27-3 record (16-2 in the WCC) and a No. 13 ranking in RPI, the 14th-ranked Zags are poised to make some noise in the NCAA Tournament.

But first they have to stifle the rest of the conference. Do that, and there’s a good chance that the noise will take place back at the Kennel in the first round of the NCAAs.

“I’d love to do that,” senior point guard Laura Stockton said after the Senior Day win over Loyola Marymount. “But first we have to take care of business in Vegas.”

That won’t be easy. The top-seeded Zags are slotted into a noon semifinal on Monday at the Orleans Arena, with an opponent yet to be determined.

The Zags’ half of the bracket includes fourth-seeded Saint Mary’s, fifth-seeded Loyola Marymount, No. 8 Portland and No. 9 San Francisco.

Saturday’s game against LMU went down to the wire, while Saint Mary’s gave the Zags all they wanted in both meetings, 74-62 in Spokane on Jan. 3 and 66-52 in Moraga, California, on Feb. 2.

Should the Zags advance to Tuesday’s final, they could face BYU for a third time after a pair of two-point losses to the Cougars.

Those defeats should be motivation enough.

“I can’t remember the last time we’ve lost to a team twice in one year,” Gonzaga coach Lisa Fortier said after falling 66-64 at home to BYU on Feb. 16.

For the record, it hasn’t happened since 2015-16, when an injury-plagued GU squad lost dropped three games to Santa Clara and two to Saint Mary’s.

Both GU and BYU are locks for the NCAAs (BYU is 23-6 and 33rd in RPI) but are chasing higher seeds.

Winners of six straight, BYU is the hottest team in the conference. GU has won four in a row.

All year, the Zags have excelled at the important things: They rank 18th in Division I (out of 349 schools) in field goal percentage (45.9 percent), 28th in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.19) and 40th in rebounding margin at plus-6.3.

They’re also healthy, with no major injuries since conference play began, and they’re well-rested; no player averages more than 28 minutes per game.

“I think we’re one of the most balanced teams around,” Fortier said recently.

Gonzaga forward Zykera Rice (00) helps cut down the net after winning the West Coast Conference Basketball Championships final game against San Diego 79-71, Tues., March. 6, 2018, at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga forward Zykera Rice (00) helps cut down the net after winning the West Coast Conference Basketball Championships final game against San Diego 79-71, Tues., March. 6, 2018, at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Fortier and her staff can count on the inside game of Rice (who shoots 52 percent from the field and averages a team-high 14.2 points and 5.9 rebounds), and the emerging twin towers, 6-foot-3 sophomores LeeAnne and Jenn Wirth.

Starting forward LeeAnne Wirth, whom Fortier calls the biggest surprise of the season, is coming off the best game of her career, a 13-point, 13-rebound outing against Loyola Marymount.

Jenn Wirth, a projected starter before a missing the first seven games of the year with a finger injury, has been consistent all year off the bench, averaging 8.2 points and 5.4 rebounds.

The backcourt is even deeper, with Stockton and backup point guard Jessie Loera both averaging better than a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

On the wing, versatile senior Chandler Smith averages 9.3 points and 5.3 boards – both second on the team. That versatility is matched by sophomore Jill Townsend, who averages barely 20 minutes a game and scores 9.1 points while snagging almost five boards and shooting 42 percent from long range.

The only better long-range shooter is Katie Campbell, who has ranked in the top five nationally for most of the season. She finished the regular season shooting 55-for-120, or 45.8 percent. That would rank sixth in the nation, but Campbell doesn’t meet the criteria (two made 3-pointers per game) for the official NCAA list.

Looking for weaknesses that could cost the Zags in Vegas?

For one, they’ve been slow out of the gate the past few games. They’re also shooting a mediocre 71.5 percent from the line in the past three weeks.

Gonzaga also has been over-reliant on the inside game of late, attempting only about 10 3-point shots per game in the past five contests.

Interestingly, GU ranks only 277th nationally in 3-point shots attempted, but a lofty 11th in 3-point accuracy at 37.7 percent.

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