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Gonzaga women get marquee win to close nonconference play against No. 20 Missouri State

Jenn Wirth is ready for a break, and she can’t wait.

The plane leaves early Saturday morning, carrying Jenn and her sister LeeAnne back to Arizona for a few precious days with family and friends.

They’ve earned it, and so did their Gonzaga teammates, who ushered in the holidays Friday night with an exhilarating 64-52 nonconference win over Missouri State.

They did it the hard way, with tough defense, big plays at both ends and long minutes for some key players.

“I didn’t realize it,” said Jenn Wirth, who played 31 minutes, well above her average. Her wrist was wrapped in ice following a big night that included seven rebounds and a team-high 14 points.

“I guess the adrenaline kicked in,” Wirth said.

Then again, anyone would be excited about a matchup between two ranked teams, neither of which plays in what coach Lisa Fortier refers to as a “football conference.”

“We’re always trying to schedule some strong teams,” Fortier said. “It was a good night for women’s basketball.”

It was especially good for 17th-ranked GU, which finished the nonconference season 11-1 to match the program best set last year. Beating the 20th-ranked Lady Bears will also come in handy on Selection Monday, when the Zags will be angling for a high seed and potentially home court for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

That’s almost three months away, though. On Friday, the Zags enjoyed the game for its own sake, reveling in what Fortier called “the little things, the dirty work” that made the difference.

There were many in a game that wasn’t decided until the final minutes.

GU missed its first four shots, but took a 13-9 lead after the first quarter. MSU took a brief 20-19 lead late in the half, and had a chance for more, but with the score tied at 22, Elle Ruffridge airballed a 3-point shot.

GU guard Katie Campbell answered with a 3-pointer, and seconds later stole the ball and took it back for a layup that made it 27-22. As the crowd of 5,570 roared its approval, MSU called timeout.

“That was exciting, to get that burst of energy – we needed it,” said Campbell, who played a team-high 32 minutes and finished with 11 points. “We were feeding off the crowd today.”

Gonzaga’s five-point halftime lead was down to two early in the third quarter, but the Zags answered with 8 minutes of near-perfect basketball.

Leading 30-28, GU got layups from Jenn and LeeAnne Wirth, a foul shot from Jill Townsend and a nice bounce pass from Melody Kempton that found LeeAnne Wirth in stride for another easy basket that made it 37-30.

Two minutes later, Townsend rebounded a miss by Kempton and made the layup to give GU its first double-digit lead (43-32) with 2 minutes, 39 seconds left in the third quarter.

Townsend and Campbell played extended minutes, mostly because of their defense.

“It’s funny, but I was thinking they looked tired,” Fortier said. “But in a tight game, the lineup gets tighter and it was working.

“I liked the way Katie was working their ballhandler, and the way Townie was rebounding. If someone else isn’t going to do it, you have to get out there.”

The Zags also got another big game from backup forward Kempton, who played almost 27 minutes. The former Post Falls star had eight points and six rebounds, but also made life tough inside as MSU shot only 34% from the field.

Townsend logged 30 minutes, finishing with a team-high nine boards and holding MSU star Alexa Willard to 11 points – well below her season average of 19.7.

GU took a 49-34 lead into the fourth quarter, but it was down to 10 in less than a minute and only eight with 6 1/2 minutes to play. That’s when Kempton rebounded her miss and made a layup that restored the double-digit lead (51-41).

Missouri State (9-2) twice got within nine points but never seriously threatened in the final three minutes.

Gonzaga is off until Dec. 29, when it opens West Coast Conference play at home against Portland.