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Gonzaga’s win in WNIT opener dampened by injury to Shaniqua Nilles

Gonzaga celebrates its 88-54 win over UC Riverside in a WNIT first-round game Thursday. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga celebrates its 88-54 win over UC Riverside in a WNIT first-round game Thursday. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

The game went on Thursday night, just the way Shaniqua Nilles wanted.

As the injured Gonzaga senior was being wheeled out of the McCarthey Center on a gurney, Nilles raised her hands as if to say, “Play on.”

And so the Bulldogs did, taking an 88-54 win over UC Riverside in the first round of the Women’s NIT. The reward is another home game on Monday against Utah or Montana State.

Nobody was thinking that far ahead late in the third quarter, when Nilles took an elbow to the jaw from the Highlanders’ Michelle Curry. Nilles collapsed to the floor and lay motionless for about 10 minutes as the crowd sat silently and coach Lisa Fortier tried to comfort her.

The crowd couldn’t tell, but “she was talking and moving,” Fortier said. “When you get a hit like that, you take every precaution you can.”

No additional details on Nilles’ condition were available late Thursday night.

As Nilles was fitted with a cervical collar and taken to the hospital, the rest of the Bulldogs needed some comfort, and Fortier did her best. But only when Nilles raised her hands “did they believe me that she was OK,” Fortier said.

“It looked worse that it actually is,” said Fortier, who said she didn’t believe the foul was intentional.

By then, the game was already in hand: The Bulldogs (19-13) were up 59-39 and cruising toward the second round.

Far from coasting, GU pushed even harder in the fourth quarter. Six minutes later, the lead was 79-48 and GU emptied its bench.

Riverside didn’t have much of a bench. The Highlanders suited up just seven players, and fatigue began to tell late in the game. Not surprisingly, GU’s bench outscored Riverside’s 47-2.

The GU freshmen came up big again. Jill Barta had 20 points and 10 boards, while Laura Stockton put up 10 points and five assists.

The biggest surprise was Zhane Templeton, who came off the bench to hit 5 of 7 shots and finished with 16 points.

“She’s a great shooter and she always has the green light,” Fortier said.

Asked about Nilles, Templeton said the coaches “told us to come out and play for her, and so I did.”

The game began in surreal conditions. For the first time in recent memory, the Kennel was barely one-quarter full, owing to the GU men’s NCAA game played later Thursday night.

“Monday night, we’ll have it full again,” Fortier said.

Perhaps because of that, the Bulldogs got off to a slow start, leading only 33-28 with three minutes left in the half. They got a late surge to go up 41-30 at the half.

They had a 22-13 rebounding edge at halftime and dominated on the boards in the second half. The final tally was 44-23.

“So many people stepped up,” Fortier said. “Riverside is a tough offensive team … and I’m proud of the way we stepped up and got a high hand on their shooters.

“We had a lot of fun tonight.”

The fun will continue Monday night.

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