Apparently, Senior Day couldn’t get here soon enough for the Gonzaga women, so they decided to celebrate two days early.
“Pre-Senior Night,” Zykera Rice called it, a runaway 83-60 home win over Pepperdine on Thursday night that meant almost as much as the real thing.
“It feels amazing,” Rice said. Then she joined fellow seniors Laura Stockton, Chandler Smith and the rest of the Zags on the Kennel court to celebrate at least a share of another West Coast Conference regular-season title.
It was GU’s third straight championship, a trifecta for its three seniors that was worth shedding a few tears of joy for coach Lisa Fortier.
By game’s end, the Zags’ 26-3 record – 15-2 in the WCC – and No. 16 national ranking were just numbers.
“I got emotional when I came off and saw Laura and Zee and Chandler …” Fortier paused.
“They did such a great job,” she said. “We played like we were on a mission.”
On the stat sheet, it was a senior moment for the ages. Rice shot 9 for 12 from the field for 23 points and six boards in just 22 minutes on the court.
“The team just did a really good job of getting me the ball,” Rice said. “It feels great going into Senior Night with this kind of momentum.”
Stockton played a season-high 32 minutes at high gear, ran the break at breakneck speed and finished with 13 points and six assists.
“Any time I can get out in transition, it’s easy buckets for me or my teammates,” Stockton said. “I don’t have many more games left, so I want to dial in my energy and give it everything I have.”
Once again, Smith checked all the boxes: 14 points, five assists and a game-high nine boards. She also made the play that turned the game in GU’s favor.
With eight consecutive wins, Pepperdine (19-9, 12-5) was the hottest team in the conference going into the game.
Just short of 10 minutes in, GU trailed 21-12. Then Smith grabbed a rebound, drove the length of the court for a layin and a foul with 2 seconds left in the first quarter.
“After that, we didn’t look back,” Smith said.
With that play, the Waves had crested and GU slowly wrested control. The Zags led 38-34 at halftime and 57-50 after three quarters before shooting 86 percent from the field in the fourth quarter to pull away.
“The No. 1 key was to come out with intensity,” said Fortier, who has won four regular-season WCC titles in four years as head coach.
“We weren’t going to wait – we were going to be aggressive,” Fortier said. “It just took us a few seconds for the shots to go in.”
At the other end, the Zags confronted Pepperdine senior Yasmine Robinson-Bacote, this week’s conference player of the week after averaging 27.5 points and 10 boards in her two previous games.
Against GU, Robinson-Bacote finished with 11 points – on 5-for-17 shooting – and two rebounds.
After a slow start, GU shot 35 for 64, or 54.7 percent, from the field. Pepperdine was 21 for 70.
“It was really fun to coach,” Fortier said.
The only thing better would be an undisputed title, which would be Gonzaga’s with a Senior Night win over Loyola Marymount or a BYU loss to Santa Clara.
BYU is one game back at 14-3 after beating USF 82-59 on Thursday.
After the game, Stockton made it clear to her teammates that the job isn’t finished, the emotions of Senior Night notwithstanding.
“Laura Stockton is a lot of things, but she’s not one who wants to share,” Fortier said.
Neither do the rest of the players, Fortier said.
“After the game, I told them they had just won a championship,” Fortier said. “They played (tonight) like they had a mission to accomplish.”
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