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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Blanchette: Gritty Bulldogs suffer heartbreaking loss at WCC tournament

LAS VEGAS – The HBO cameras haven’t intruded into their locker room, and so maybe cable subscribers have been shorted on their share of more typical TV pathos.

“I’ve cried after a few games this year,” admitted Gonzaga senior Shelby Cheslek.

That might happen with any one loss, of course, depending on the weight of the game. But with the Bulldogs this women’s basketball season, it’s the cumulative weight that’s been the trigger.

Maybe until Thursday night, that is.

Because there was a certain finality to their 59-58 loss to the Santa Clara Broncos on the opening night of the West Coast Conference basketball tournament at Orleans Arena.

Well, that’s not technically true. The Women’s National Invitation Tournament is very much a possibility to extend the season, and it’s likely the Zags’ vigorous fan support could snag them a home game or two.

But it’s March, and there’s a different kind of finality in play.

For the first time in eight years, the Bulldogs won’t appear in the NCAA tournament.

That’s a streak which has included a run to the Elite Eight – and an astonishing near-miss for a second – and three Sweet 16s. It included Courtney Vandersloot’s gripping goodbye at the Spokane Arena and takedowns of the likes Oregon State, Texas A&M and Louisville.

It’s a streak that grew, and then rooted, another fan phenomenon in Spokane.

And the last of their 13 losses this season put an end to it.

Which wasn’t the most remarkable thing about the game at all.

The level of desperation the Bulldogs brought to this exercise was nothing short of incredible. The Zags might have been short on efficiency, detail, poise and clutch on various occasions, but the Broncos’ postgame hugs should have come with reminders to one another that it’s better to be lucky than good.

The Zags shot 31 percent. They committed 20 turnovers. They missed four layups in the last four minutes and their leading scorer and all-conference player, Jill Barta, had her worst game in almost two months.

And still Laura Stockton had an open 3-pointer to win it with a couple ticks left on the clock.

That was only one of many opportunities the Bulldogs left unfulfilled in the final quarter. It was also the only one the clock made it impossible for them to overcome.

They overcame all the rest with a grit future teams would be wise to emulate – and even those teams who built that NCAA legacy would admire.

“They’re so tough and they don’t stop,” marveled coach Lisa Fortier. “There were so many times they could have given in and given up. We had our best player go out. Then our next best player go out. Then our next best player go out.”

The injuries that ended the seasons of senior Elle Tinkle and Emma Wolframm, and took Shaniqua Nilles and Kiara Kudron out of the lineup for long stretches were unprecedented in the program. The losses that piled up weren’t, exactly – but took their own toll. There were a couple of blowouts, yes, but there were also four one-pointers in the space of 36 days.

“But the amazing thing is,” Fortier said, “they’re not tired of us. And they’re not tired of each other. They just keep coming back.”

Gonzaga had never lost an opening game since the WCC tournament moved to Las Vegas in 2009 – and maybe that’s why it didn’t feel like the Zags were going to lose this one.

But Santa Clara threw up a zone that seemed to swallow up any open space, especially around Barta, the gifted freshman who’d drilled them for 28 points in their last meeting.

“They were going to make sure that didn’t happen again,” Fortier said.

And yet the Zags held a lead for most of the first half thanks to the play inside of Cheslek, and after the Broncos threatened to break things open in the third, fought back when Emma Stach, Chelsea Waters and Zhane Templeton found the range outside.

But come the fourth quarter, the Zags would make only 2 of 15 shots – one part of a three-point play by Barta that pulled them even for the last time.

The Zags understood their mission here. Any at-large NCAA possibilities “went away a long time ago,” Fortier said. And the pressure of maintaining that streak was largely an unspoken one.

“Maybe I didn’t put enough pressure on them,” Fortier said.

Really, she didn’t have to.

“It’s hard,” Cheslek said. “Especially your senior year when you’ve seen the kind of success the program has had. It’s hard when it’s your time to be up there and you’re struggling.”

But sometimes the struggle itself is defining. And if future teams go to school on this one, they’ll know how to carry that weight.

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