CORVALLIS, Ore. – The plan came together early Friday afternoon on the Townsend family ranch in Okanogan, Washington.
Four days after undergoing major surgery on her left leg, Gonzaga’s Jill Townsend was back home because her parents “wanted to keep an eye on me.”
Three hundred miles away, Townsend’s teammates were preparing to play in the first round of the NCAA Tournament – without her.
That just wouldn’t do.
Five hours later, Townsend was on her way, joined by mother Janell and brother Jim, a football player at Eastern Washington who happened to be home on spring break.
After spending the night in Zillah, Washington, they drove the rest of the way in time for Jill to meet the team bus as it pulled up to the entrance of Gill Coliseum.
The GU coaches were in on the secret, but not the players, one of whom shrieked, “Oh, my God, is that Jill?”
Balanced on crutches but floating on air, Townsend offered heartfelt hugs to everyone.
“We worked all season for this,” said Townsend, the Zags’ second-leading scorer this season, who, along with point guard Laura Stockton, was injured March 11 in the West Coast Conference tournament in Las Vegas.
“Seeing her outside, we were all so happy,” point guard Jessie Loera said. “We’re all so blessed that she was able to experience this today.”
Later, the coaches and support personnel stood outside a closed locker room as she joined Stockton.
“Seeing the hard work that everyone put in, I just couldn’t miss this,” Townsend said.
A few minutes before warmups, Townsend joined her teammates in a players-only meeting. When it ended, cheers reverberated through the Gill Coliseum basement.
The Zags were ready to play.
Seconds before tipoff, as the bench players took their seats, Townsend lingered. She hugged Chandler Smith, her neighbor back home in Okanogan County, and headed for the farthest seats on the bench, her injured leg resting on a chair.
Townsend joined every huddle along with Stockton.
“We’re here partly because of her,” guard Katie Campbell said of Townsend. “How excited she gets, and how pumped-up she makes us feel, and seeing her on the bench, even if she’s just sitting there, it was so exciting for us.”
Emotions don’t score points, but after one quarter the Zags led Little Rock 21-2.
After the victory, Townsend and Stockton walked off the court, winners again.
They’ll be back Monday night, when the Zags play Oregon State for a spot in the Sweet 16.
“For sure,” Townsend said.
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