For the Gonzaga women’s basketball program this past decade, the ride never stopped.
Through two coaching staffs and dozens of players from around the world, the Zags’ journey has been as steady as it’s been successful, with nine West Coast Conference championships and NCAA Tournament appearances, and an All-American in Courtney Vandersloot.
When the decade began, GU was heading for a date with destiny: the program’s first appearance in the Sweet 16. And when it ended, the Zags were ranked in the Top 25 and hoping for another trip.
Here’s a look back at some of the highlights of Gonzaga women’s basketball since 2010.
In its greatest season, GU reaches Elite Eight: Records are made to be broken, but GU’s great 2009-10 season was eclipsed only a year later. That wasn’t a great surprise, since the Zags returned every top player except Vivian Frieson. Led by senior guard Courtney Vandersloot and forward Kayla Standish, the Zags again rolled through the WCC regular season with a perfect record but received only an 11 seed into the NCAAs.
However, as it turned out, they never had to leave Spokane. GU beat Iowa and UCLA in the first two rounds in the Kennel, then took a short trip to the Arena for the regionals. There they met No. 7 seed Louisville in the one of the biggest games in program history. With 11,000 fans cheering them on, GU knocked off the Cardinals 76-69 to reach the Elite Eight.
A 31-5 season ended with a loss to top-seeded Stanford but remains the best in school history.
Zags in Sweet 16 for the first time: Coach Kelly Graves and his staff had been building for this moment since he took over a struggling program a decade earlier. Since then, the Zags had twice reached the NCAA Tournament, including a second-round appearance in 2009. Gonzaga made more history during the 2009-10 season, with a perfect 14-0 record in the WCC and a second-straight trip to the NCAAs.
Once there, the seventh-seeded Zags took fans on a crazy ride in Seattle, beating North Carolina 92-76 and No. 2 seed Texas A&M 72-71. With 23 points and nine rebounds from senior forward Vivian Frieson, the Zags moved on the Sweet 16.
“I thought of the way our kids celebrated,” Graves said after the game. “They weren’t giddy. They were excited beyond belief, but not giddy or silly. I think they firmly believed they were going to be in that position, I really do.”
The historic season ended with a loss to Xavier, but GU established program bests with 29 wins and a No. 12 ranking in the final Associated Press poll.
Vandersloot named All-American: Three days after scoring 34 points to beat Louisville in the second round of the 2011 NCAA Tournament, Vandersloot made for history by becoming the first Gonzaga woman to be named All-American.
Vandersloot also changed the face of the women’s game at GU.
Before she arrived from Kent, Washington, the women’s team was drawing fewer than 1,500 fans per game. By the time Vandersloot graduated in 2011, that number had tripled. Winning does that – the Zags became an NCAA Tournament regular by 2010 – but so did her style.
“I don’t want to dramatize it too much but she’s like Gretzky in hockey,” GU legend John Stockton said of Vandersloot. She also had the numbers to back it up; as a senior she averaged 14 points, 9.4 assists and 3.6 steals.
The nation noticed. In addition to making second-team All-American, Vandersloot was named the Nancy Lieberman Award as the top point guard in Division 1 and made the Wooden All-America team.
A magical weekend in the Willamette Valley: The Zags had a roller-coaster ride during Lisa Fortier’s first season: four losses in their first 10 games followed by a sweet run to another WCC regular-season title thanks to players like Sunny Greinacher, Keani Albanez and Elle Tinkle. Then the Zags crashed in the WCC tournament, setting up a nerve-wracking selection show.
“We played a really good team in a hostile environment,” Fortier said. “I’m so excited and happy for our team.”
That sent the Zags home to Spokane and Sweet 16 matchup with Tennessee. GU lost an overtime heartbreaker, 73-69, but finished 26-8 overall.
Success endures at Gonzaga: In the fall of 2011, fans were right to wonder: How would the Zags cope with the loss of the most storied senior class in program history?
The answer: just fine. The Zags of 2011-12 won another WCC regular-season title but lost in the finals of the tournament to fall to a No. 11 seed. However, once again Gonzaga successfully bid to host first- and second-round NCAA games (a format scrapped two years later), and it paid off. GU knocked off No. 6 Rutgers 86-73 as Kayla Standish and Haiden Palmer scored 20-plus points each, then beat third-seeded Miami 65-54 on March 19 thanks to big games from Standish and Katelan Redmon.
The 28-6 season ended with the Zags’ third-straight Sweet 16 appearance, a 79-62 loss to No. 2 Kentucky.
Fortier named to succeed Graves: After winning two more WCC titles, Graves was lured away by Oregon, which left GU Athletic Director Mike Roth with a tough choice: go outside for an experienced head coach or promote from within.
Fortier, then 32 years old and a longtime assistant, had no head coaching experience, but she had “that fire in the belly,” said Roth, who promoted Fortier on April 14.
The program hasn’t lost a step under Fortier and her assistants, Jordan Green, Stacy Clinesmith and Craig Fortier. In the last five years GU has won four WCC regular-season titles and made four NCAA appearances.
Fortier is 139-41 overall and has a winning record against every WCC rival.
A regular season that was anything but: By the time No. 8 Stanford came to the Kennel on Dec. 2, 2018, the GU program was entirely Fortier’s, with every player recruited by her staff.
What better time for a marqee regular-season win, a measuring stick against the top program in the West? Unranked at the time, GU was up for the challenge, beating Stanford 79-73 to highlight the best regular season in school history.
Asked how the win ranked in her collegiate career, senior Chandler Smith smiled and said, “Maybe number one. But maybe later I’ll have another number one.”
Before the time the regular season ended, GU was 27-3 and ranked as high as 12th. It also reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
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