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First place on the line as Gonzaga women head to BYU in showdown of WCC unbeatens

UPDATED: Wed., Jan. 16, 2019

Gonzaga forward Chandler Smith nails a 3-pointer over BYU guard Malia Nawahine on  Feb. 24, 2018, in the McCarthey Athletic Center. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga forward Chandler Smith nails a 3-pointer over BYU guard Malia Nawahine on Feb. 24, 2018, in the McCarthey Athletic Center. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

The bull’s-eye is forever on their backs, so the Gonzaga women have decided to offer a moving target.

The Zags are using their quick hands to force turnovers and turn them into points, a big reason they’re 16-1 going into Thursday night’s showdown at BYU for first place in the West Coast Conference.

GU’s 5-0 record in WCC play is built mostly on inside dominance. GU has a plus-10.2 rebound edge against conference opponents and is outscoring them by an average of 40-18 in the paint.

But the Zags also are capitalizing on the fast break.

“For the most part, we have this box checked and this box checked in most of these categories,” coach Lisa Fortier said Tuesday as the 13th-ranked Zags prepared for a big game in Provo, Utah.

BYU has a 6-0 mark in WCC play and a strong backcourt, but it will need to take care of the ball. In WCC play, GU is outscoring opponents by an average of 22-10 off turnovers.

That kind of inside-outside strength is a confidence booster going into the Zags’ biggest test of the conference season. GU is ranked 11th in RPI, but BYU isn’t far behind at 28th.

“We know what it’s like not to be ranked and playing a ranked team,” said guard Laura Stockton, who’s coming off a 19-point, six-assist effort against Portland. … “But we’re used to being favored, being Gonzaga in the WCC with teams coming at us with their best.”

Expect more of the same Thursday night.

“You have to go through Gonzaga. Just like in the NFL, you have to go through the New England Patriots,” BYU coach Jeff Judkins told the Deseret News of Salt Lake City this week.

“Their ranking is well-deserved. … They’ve run through our league so far, and it’s going to be a great matchup. We have to win this game if we want to win the conference,” Judkins said.

The Cougars have won eight straight and are 14-3 overall. They’re getting a big season out of freshman guard Shaylee Gonzales, who averages 17.6 points and has been in double figures every game this year.

Sophomore post Sara Hamson, who stands 6-foot-7, is the active Division I blocks leader.

BYU’s strength is in the backcourt. In a 74-73 win at Saint Mary’s last weekend, the Cougars got 20 points from Gonzales, 12 from Brenna Chase and 25 from Paisley Johnson, who also went 9 for 13 from the field to earn conference player of the week.

All three played at least 34 minutes at Saint Mary’s, which leaves depth as a question mark for the Cougars.

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