The Gonzaga women’s basketball team found itself with an early deficit after the visiting Southern Utah Thunderbirds outhustled the Zags to almost every rebound and loose ball.
But the Bulldogs (7-4) turned up the effort midway through the first half and willed themselves to a 70-51 win in front of 5,251 fans at McCarthey Athletic Center.
“After the first five minutes or so we played really hard,” coach Lisa Fortier said. “I’m really proud of our second-half effort.”
Southern Utah (6-2) set the tone early with physical play and hustle, and converted it into an early six-point lead.
Gonzaga responded, but the Thunderbirds again fought their way to a 20-19 lead with less than five minutes before halftime. However, the Bulldogs’ Sunny Greinacher and Elle Tinkle finally caught fire and fueled a 13-2 run to end the half for a 32-22 lead.
“They really took it to us in the early minutes,” said Tinkle, who scored 12 points and led the team with eight rebounds. “Fortunately, we were able to respond.”
Greinacher led all scorers with 17 points, which gave her 998 for her Gonzaga career.
“I’m really proud of our team,” said the senior forward from Essen, Germany. “We struggled a bit in the first half. But we had a great second half.”
In the first half, both teams shot horribly, with GU hitting only 10 of 36 shots (27.8 percent). Southern Utah wasn’t much better, hitting only 8 of 28 from the floor for 28.6 percent, including only 1 for 8 from behind the 3-point arc.
But Gonzaga shot 45.2 percent from the floor in the second half as the Zags dialed up the defensive pressure, leading to several fast breaks. For the game, Gonzaga won the rebounding battle 44-37 and scored 20 points off of 23 Southern Utah turnovers.
“I was frustrated with our play in the first half,” Fortier said. “I think we needed to readjust our focus.”
Gonzaga had four players finish in double figures in scoring. Shaniqua Nilles came off the bench for 12 points and seven rebounds. Senior guard Keani Albanez also had 12 points and seven rebounds with five steals.
“Keani’s steals got us going on offense,” Fortier said. “She was able to anticipate their plays. She was dialed in defensively.”
The Thunderbirds were led by guard Hailey Mandelko’s 15 points.
Fortier praised her team’s ability to run the half-court offense. Crisp passing led to fewer turnovers and better shots and bled time off the clock to limit the Thunderbirds’ chances to respond.
“There is obviously a game or two we’d like to have back. But we end the preseason with a positive record,” Fortier said. “I think overall our team has improved.”
Gonzaga, which has struggled at times with guards new to its system, now gets ready for conference play with a home game against BYU on Saturday.
“Not a lot of teams can start like that and turn around and win by 20 points,” Greinacher said. “We’ve definitely learned over the last two months and we will be ready for BYU.”
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