LAS VEGAS – Having made teetering on the edge their pet vice this season, the Gonzaga Bulldogs came to town not so much reveling in March Madness, but March Mustness.
Must get it together. Must not stumble. Must win.
Hey, that’s life on the margins.
After several years of being one of those rent-controlled tenants in the NCAA women’s basketball bracket, the Zags last season receded back to where maybe 85 percent of college teams reside – the try-and-hope district. A lot of that was an injury list as thick as an old Spokane phone book.
This year, it’s more their own doing and the company they keep.
Yet their first stress test here at the West Coast Conference basketball tournament in search of the league’s automatic berth to the NCAAs was remarkably stressless. OK, the shot clock violation on the first possession was not a good sign.
Everything else? A great sign.
And now the Bulldogs have two days to rest up for the semifinals after a 91-59 pounding of Pacific on Friday, with perhaps the odd moment spent thinking back in disbelief, “We lost to these guys?”
That wasn’t the half of it, really. In that game, the Zags trailed by as many as 14 points in the second quarter – and led by as many as nine in the third. There still might be 5,800 fans walking around in cervical collars from the whiplash.
But that’s kind of been the Bulldogs this season. Lots of prosperity, and many sweaty palms.
“You’re happy you can win those kinds of games,” coach Lisa Fortier said. “But on the other hand I think we put it together pretty well today, and earlier this season against Stanford and BYU the first time. We’ve been able to put it together enough that I know we have it in us.
“But sometimes you’ve got to win – pretty, ugly, any way that you can make a way.”
She can count the ways. In conference play alone, her Zags have come back from eight points (twice), nine, 11 and 14 points to win, plus assorted one and two-possession deficits. Seventeen times in all on the season. Three times the Bulldogs won in the final 10 seconds.
But they’ve also lost games like that first Pacific stunner. They were up seven in the fourth quarter at San Francisco, and ahead eight in the third period of the regular-season finale at Brigham Young – the two teams looming ahead in the WCC bracket.
Is that just basketball, or is it the Bulldogs?
“I hope that’s not our team,” senior Elle Tinkle said. “That’s not a whole lot of fun – and I know it creates stress for the coaches.”
Fortier has her theories, naturally.
“I take as much blame for it as anyone,” she said. “Part of the reason is we’re so deep and I think we’re trying to play all of them because they’re all talented players, and sometimes it gets us a little sideways. And we’ve been streaky from the perimeter, and if you’re not shooting it well – but shooting a lot of them – that can be an issue.
“I don’t know if it’s any one thing about them. I usually look at the positive side – the fact that we’re capable of gritting it out. But I do have to figure out what’s going on here.”
What is certain is that it’s helped boost the Bulldogs up on the NCAA bubble this season, even with 24 victories.
Yes, the WCC’s sorry RPI status – 15th among the 32 conferences, after several years of hovering between eighth and 10th – is a factor. But only one. Even with a couple of nice wins over Stanford (eighth) and Northwestern (62nd), GU’s nonconference victims actually carry a worse average RPI than the WCC teams.
And if the Zags don’t win here and are denied at-large NCAA entry, it’ll be because of that massive stumble after Christmas, when they lost not just to Pacific (244th in the RPI) but No. 310 Pepperdine. Bad losses can hurt worse than great wins help.
So … fret about it, or go with the flow?
“I’ve been fighting myself,” Fortier admitted. “I keep trying to be uncomfortable about it. I’m such a creature of habit. We have some consistent players on our team, but players we’ve had in the past – Sunny Greinacher, Heather Bowman – you knew every single second they’re going to do the very same thing they’ve always done. It just makes you feel comfortable, right?
“We’ve had several close games that we’ve won, and you have to have experience with those things and confidence in those situations, especially this time of year. Hopefully, that’s what we’ve developed – from the highs and the lows.”
Can’t be a hope, though. It’s a must.
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