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Zags women use fourth-quarter outburst to put away WCC champion BYU

The Gonzaga women sent a message on Saturday, the kind their fans will want to shout from the rooftops:

Don’t count us out.

The roar from the Kennel following GU’s runaway 73-55 win over 22nd-ranked BYU surely will echo all the way to Las Vegas, where they Bulldogs hope to make a little more noise in next week’s West Coast Conference tournament.

“I think it’s a warning, that we’re coming and we’re ready to play,” senior post Shelby Cheslek after a game that checked all the boxes – on Senior Day, no less, in a raucous, sold-out McCarthey Athletic Center.

For Cheslek and the four other seniors – Shaniqua Nilles, Georgia Stirton, Chelsea Waters and Elle Tinkle – it was win No. 100 over the past four years. That it came in their final home game made it all the sweeter.

Before the opening tip, coach Lisa Fortier asked each of the underclassmen for whom they wanted to dedicate Saturday’s game. They took the message to heart.

“To hear people say that they wanted to play for you and the other seniors, that means a lot,” Nilles said.

“I’m just so very proud of my team,” Nilles said.

On an afternoon that literally dripped with emotion, the Bulldogs harnessed that energy to produce the kind of signature win that had eluded them through 17 conference games.

It all came together during a fourth quarter that the Bulldogs (18-12 overall and 10-8 in the WCC) will want to bottle and bring to Thursday night’s quarterfinal game against Santa Clara.

In 10 magical minutes, GU outscored BYU 33-13 while making 10 of its last 11 shots.

“It was definitely our best quarter of the season,” Fortier said of a period that began with her team down 42-40 against a BYU team that had won 16 straight and just claimed its first regular-season WCC title.

“That’s a time when if you don’t stick together, you can fall apart a bit,” Fortier said two days after a one-point loss to San Diego. “It was a turning point, and we said ‘no, not today.’ ”

When it mattered most in this star-crossed season, the planets aligned late in the fourth quarter. GU’s lead was only 53-50 with 4:50 to play, but freshman Jill Barta took control.

Barta, who finished with a game-high 23 points, hit two free throws and a layin for a 7-point cushion with 3:28 left. Less than a minute later, Cheslek added a layin and a defensive rebound that led to a layin by Emma Stach.

Barta delivered the biggest shot, a 3-pointer with 1:25 remaining that pushed the lead to 64-50. While BYU missed five of its last six shots, Barta canned five more free throws to seal the deal.

“We won this for the seniors, for sure,” said Barta, who was 10 of 12 from the line and also had 10 rebounds.

Indeed, Fortier said her underclassmen were a “calming influence” for the seniors, most of whom had families in attendance. Besides Barta, the Bulldogs got a big game from sophomore guard Emma Stach (4 of 6 for 12 points, along with three assists).

The Bulldogs brought their defense from the opening tip. Facing the challenge of stopping WCC scoring leader Lexi Rydalch, “Everyone just took three or four steps toward her and give extra help when you can,” Barta said.

Rydalch, who came in averaging 24.7 points, picked up two early fouls, never found her rhythm and finished with 8 points on 2-of-12 shooting.

“We tried to get inside her head, and I think we did,” Barta said.

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