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Gonzaga women roll into West Coast Conference play after program-best nonconference slate

Gonzaga’s Laura Stockton celebrates a call during a game against Stanford at the McCarthey Athletic Center on  Dec. 2. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

It doesn’t get much better than this for Gonzaga women’s basketball going into West Coast Conference play.

Then again, the rest of the league could say the same thing.

The Bulldogs are 11-1 – the best nonconference mark in program history – ranked 20th in the polls and a lofty 15th in the Rating Percentage Index entering Saturday’s conference opener at Loyola Marymount.

“Nobody wants to go into conference not playing well,” coach Lisa Fortier said last week after the Zags dispatched the Idaho Vandals 88-51 in the nonconference finale at the Kennel.

“Until we get to March, you keep saying you want to play your best basketball in March, but we want to be playing as well as we can going into the conference,” Fortier said. “I’m nervous and anxious about the next part of the season.”

That’s a good thing, because the WCC is having an uncommonly good year, with five teams – GU, BYU, Saint Mary’s, Pacific and Portland – sitting in the top 100 in RPI.

The WCC is seventh out of 32 leagues in Division I. A year ago, the conference was 14th. The league went 67-38 out of conference, compared with a 51-61 mark a year ago.

That’s good news for everyone, Fortier said.

“We’re applauding each other, because that’s where we think our conference needs to be,” Fortier said.

Of course, March is in the back of everyone’s minds. GU is the preseason favorite and going for its fourth regular-season and tournament titles in five years under Fortier.

Balanced, deep and talented, the Zags are looking better than the preseason outlook.

“It’s better than the alternative,” Fortier said.

But should the Zags fall short in the WCC tournament in Las Vegas, their nonconference resume – that of the conference this year – might be good enough for an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament.

First things first: GU faces four games in the next eight days, beginning Saturday at Loyola. The Lions (7-5) were in the top 100 until dropping three straight in the Puerto Rico Classic, the last a one-point heartbreaker to Grambling State.

LMU, which tied for third in the WCC last year, has a plus-five rebounding margin and should give the Zags a battle on the glass.

The Lions are one of the worst teams from 3-point range (27.5 percent, ranking 284th out of 349 teams in Division I) and at the foul line (58.2 percent, good for 331st.)

Senior guard Gabby Green leads LMU with 16.7 points a game. Sophomore guard Chelsea Gipson adds 13.5 and sophomore forward Jasmine Jones 12.1

The Zags are at Pepperdine (6-4) on Monday. Their home opener is Thursday at 6 p.m. against Saint Mary’s, the only WCC team to beat them last year.

GU hosts Pacific (7-3) on Jan. 5. Tipoff is at noon.