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Gonzaga Women's Basketball
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Women’s basketball: Ashli Payne ignites Eastern

EWU’s Ashli Payne, at right battling GU’s Elle Tinkle last November, is a big reason the Eagles are the surprise team of the Big Sky. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
EWU’s Ashli Payne, at right battling GU’s Elle Tinkle last November, is a big reason the Eagles are the surprise team of the Big Sky. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

When the season began, the Eastern Washington women’s basketball players didn’t know what to expect.

Neither did forward Ashli Payne, a junior college transfer from Oregon who was part of an influx of new players into coach Wendy Schuller’s program.

The Eagles were coming off a 21-win season but were down to five players after several chose to leave the program. Meanwhile, Payne was finishing her sophomore season at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon.

Both saw opportunity and seized it, though Schuller wishes she’s found Payne two years sooner.

The 6-foot-tall Payne is a major reason the Eagles are the surprise team in the Big Sky Conference. Picked to finish sixth by the media and ninth by the coaches, Eastern is sitting in first place at 16-7 overall and 10-1 in the conference.

“I just try to bring everthing I can to the court,” Payne said. “I have only two years left, so I want to make the most of if.”

Payne is doing much of the heavy lifting, averaging a team-high 8.1 rebounds while scoring 11.5 points a game. She’s made an even bigger impact in conference play: through 11 games she’s averaging 12.1 points and nine boards.

“She’s been a big part of our success,” Schuller said. “Two things: She’s a great rebounder, and we’ve become a better rebounding team than we have in the last two years because of her.”

Despite winning all-league honors at Olympic High in Bremerton, she didn’t land at a four-year school. She had several offers from community colleges, but opted for a change of scenery in the southern Oregon timber town of Roseburg.

She prospered at UCC, one of the top programs in the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges. As a sophomore, Payne averaged 17.8 points, 10 rebounds and 4.3 assists to lead the Riverhawks to a 27-5 record and the NWAACC South Region title.

Payne finished her career as Umpqua’s fifth-leading scorer with 1,127 career points and its second-leading rebounder with 635 boards.

“That’s our bad for not picking her up two years earlier,” Schuller said.

Better late than never. Eastern’s depleted roster was an enticement – “I knew I could be a big part of the team,” Payne said – but the biggest reason was Schuller.

“She’s passionate just like me and sees a lot of potential in us, and that gave me faith,” said the 20-year-old Payne, who quickly embraced the Eagles as well as the Cheney community.

“I love the fact that the whole town revolves around the university, and I love that small-town support,” Payne said.

Building momentum

After winning two home games last week, Gonzaga coach Lisa Fortier said she was happy with her team’s mentality.

After having lost five of their previous six games, the Bulldogs “Played tough and responded well” in beating Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine, Fortier said.

The wins improved GU to 16-9 overall and 8-5 in the West Coast Conference going into Saturday’s home game against last-place Portland.

The Pilots are only 3-21 overall and 1-12 in the WCC, but almost upset the Bulldogs before falling 71-63 last month in Portland

“They’re good offensively with the dribble-drive, and they also shoot it really well,” Fortier said.

GU forward Kiara Kudron, who suffered a wrist injury at San Francisco on Jan. 30, is unlikely to play this week, Fortier said

Cougars regroup

Washington State dropped its sixth straight game on Sunday, but coach June Daugherty said the Cougars “played their hearts out” in a 54-45 home loss to eighth-ranked Oregon State.

“I loved our energy. For the majority of the game, we played our ‘A game.’ It’s exciting to see that,” said Daugherty, whose team was coming off a deflating 73-48 loss to Oregon.

Against OSU, the Cougars (12-11 overall, 3-9 in the Pac-12) led by six points after three quarters, but were outscored 26-11 in the fourth.

“Oregon State showed great poise, and they were able to close it out,” said Daugherty, who got a game-high 22 points from freshman Borislava Hristova. “That’s a step we have to take right now as a team – to be able to play hard and keep that passion, but close it out in the last 5 minutes.”

Washington State now begins a four-game road trip to close out its away schedule. The Cougars face UCLA on Friday.

Pirates eye postseason

Whitworth took a major step toward clinching a spot in the 2016 Northwest Conference tournament with victories over Whitman and Pacific (Ore.) last week. The Pirates (13-8 overall and 8-4 in the Northwest Conference) need only one win in their final four games to clinch a spot in the four-team NWC tournament.

A sweep of the final four games will also move the Bucs up to second place and allow for at least one home game in the playoffs.

Against Pacific on Saturday night, senior KC McConnell became only the third Whitworth women’s basketball player in history to surpass 1,500 career points during the win over Pacific (Ore.). She currently sits at 1,520 with four games to play in the regular season.

McConnell was named the NWC Women’s Basketball Student-Athlete of the Week for the fourth time this season. She will be one of six seniors to be recognized prior to Saturday’s home game against Willamette. The others are Taylor Flemming, Mikayla Kraemer, Briann Maley, Faith Emerson and Alexis McLeod.

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