That’s why they call them trap games: You just don’t see them coming.
But few have been as cleverly laid as the one that almost ensnared the Gonzaga women Sunday afternoon in a 62-57 victory over the Portland Pilots.
It was sprung – at the Kennel, no less – by the unlikeliest of hunters, the Pilots, losers of 21 straight against the premier program of the West Coast Conference.
In their preseason poll, the WCC coaches picked the Pilots to finish last – yet there they were, leading the Zags by 20 points early in the second quarter as a sellout crowd of 6,000 looked on.
Unfortunately, so did the Gonzaga players.
“It seemed like every 50-50 ball was going into their hands,” Gonzaga guard Jill Townsend said after the game. “They were flying around and they were disrupting us. Their pressure got to us, and we were uncomfortable.”
However, those uncomfortable moments seem to bring out the best in Townsend, who led the 17th-ranked Zags out of that 20-point hole in their WCC opener.
But it wasn’t only the team-high 18 points, or her perfect 4-for-4 shooting from beyond the 3-point arc, that brought them back.
It was also the five steals, the game-high eight rebounds and the critical jump ball Townsend forced after a missed Portland 3-pointer with 11 seconds left.
“It was about grit and toughing it out,” Townsend said as the Zags (12-1) look ahead to another two months of getting everyone else’s best shot.
“I don’t think we showed our best today – definitely not – but we showed them that we’re going to be fighters,” Townsend said.
Good thing, because Portland (7-5) administered what amounted to a standing-8 count early in the game. The Pilots not only hit 12 of their first 17 shots while GU was 4 for 17, they outhustled the Zags for almost every loose ball.
The also combined physical play with a tight zone defense, “which we haven’t seen a ton of this year,” GU coach Lisa Fortier said.
Still, Fortier didn’t see this coming, even after a Christmas break “of resting for four days and eating fudge” and a big game looming Thursday night at BYU.
She and her staff had warned the players that this was a different Portland team, with a new coach in Michael Meek, who took George Fox to a pair of appearances in the Division III title game. She also told them about the new-look Pilots roster, which includes current WCC scoring leader Alex Fowler.
Yet the message apparently didn’t sink in with the Zags.
“I didn’t recognize that team in the first half very much,” Fortier said. “We weren’t working on team plays, we were shooting it early in the shot clock and we weren’t getting offensive rebounds.”
However, the Zags weren’t getting frustrated. After falling behind 32-12 with 8 minutes left in the second quarter, they chipped away and trailed 37-24 at intermission.
They got a little chippy, said junior forward Jenn Wirth, who not only delivered 14 points and seven boards but also a few sharp words in the locker room.
“I kind of got on them a little bit,” Wirth said. “I said, ‘do you guys want to win or not?’”
It was rhetorical but got the proper response: Wirth opened the half with a layin, and Katie Campbell and LeeAnne Wirth registered back-to-back blocks before Townsend drained a jumper off a nice pass from Loera.
That provoked a timeout by Portland, after which Townsend added a pair of 3s to cut the deficit to 43-38 midway through the third.
But there would be no big runs – just more grit from both teams.
Despite four starters logging 37-plus minutes, the Pilots didn’t fade – at least on defense. Despite giving up 23 points in the third quarter, they still led 53-47 going into the fourth and by the same six-point margin with 5 1/2 minutes left.
However, Portland only scored four points in the final period, while Townsend and her teammates made all the big plays down the stretch.
Trailing 55-51 with less than 4 minutes to play, Townsend hit a 3-pointer from the corner. Then she stole the ball to set up a trey from Campbell that gave GU its first lead since the opening minute, 57-55.
Jenn Wirth’s jump shot was answered by Portland, but Kayleigh Truong’s foul shot gave GU a 3-point cushion with 32 seconds left. The Pilots had two chances to tie, but both 3-point attempts missed the mark.
The second miss rebounded almost to the sideline. As a Pilot corralled the ball, so did Townsend as the possession arrow was pointing in Gonzaga’s favor. Three seconds later, Jessie Loera made two free throws to clinch the game.
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