Sometimes March Madness really is a walk in the park.
That’s where Gonzaga women’s basketball coach Lisa Fortier found herself at noon Monday, when her phone buzzed with talk of a leaked NCAA Tournament bracket.
For the Zags, they were happy rumors: a five seed and a date with 12th-seeded Arkansas Little Rock on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. in not-so-far-away Corvallis, Oregon.
But were they true?
“I said, “I don’t know if this is right – I’ll be there when I can,’ ” Fortier said. “I certainly wasn’t going to run – I was 20 minutes away.”
Others chased the rumors at full gait. By 1 p.m., the Zags and the rest of the world had learned the truth: Someone at ESPN had inadvertently displayed most of the women’s bracket on its home page – almost four hours before the NCAA selection show.
“Who doesn’t love a scandal, right?” GU forward Zykera Rice said with a smile.
Scandal or not, the Zags like the final result. Instead of a possible trip to Iowa or Texas, they’re staying in the same time zone and facing a non-Power 5 program that must travel halfway across the country.
“And we’re staying in our own beds a day longer,” said Fortier, acknowledging the reward for a program-best 28-4 record and a national ranking that’s hovered in the mid-teens since January.
The five seed also is a best in program history.
“It says that they’ve worked hard for a long time,” Fortier said. “These guys have worked their tails off.”
And no doubt the Zags figure they deserve a break. Exactly a week ago, at the West Coast Conference tournament in Las Vegas, they lost starting point guard Laura Stockton and top reserve Jill Townsend to season-ending leg injuries.
A day later, during the WCC title game, Fortier rushed from the Orleans Arena Court to be with her hospitalized brother, Hayden. He died Wednesday of complications from muscular dystrophy.
Monday’s celebration was mixed with poignancy.
In this, her senior year, Stockton’s biggest wish had been to win an NCAA Tournament game. Now she was on crutches and breaking bread with her teammates, who had just finished practice.
Townsend was already gone, scheduled for surgery Monday.
Later, Fortier thanked many people – the university, the city the basketball community around the country.
“We had a lot of people reaching out after the injuries on Monday, that was a hard time for our team,” Fortier said. “And then it was all put into perspective on Tuesday.”
Fortier didn’t stop there.
“Spokane in general is a great community who rallies around people, and they rallied around our team,” Fortier said. “My family, my parents, my brother and our team has felt really well supported.”
Then it was time to get to work. Actually it had begun days earlier, after the return from Vegas.
Down two key players, the coaches “have been coming up with new things and drills for us,” senior Chandler Smith said. “It’s been competitive and fun.”
Anticipating a 4 p.m. selection show, the team had planned to practice earlier in the afternoon. They stuck to the script, even when it was torn up by the gaffe at ESPN.
“We were running all over the place figuring out if (the rumor) was true or not,” Rice said.
It was. By 1:45 p.m., the network had issued an apology.
“In working with the NCAA to prepare for tonight’s Women’s Selection Special, we received the bracket, similar to years past,” ESPN announced. “In the midst of our preparations, the bracket was mistakenly posted on ESPNU.”
It continued: “We deeply regret the error and extend out apology to the NCAA and the women’s basketball community. We will conduct a thorough review of our process to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”
At the same time, ESPN advanced the bracket reveal to 2 p.m. Fortier interrupted practice for a few minutes and brought the team into the Herak Room to watch.
By then, Fortier’s staff had gathered a few threads of information on Arkansas Little Rock, which on Saturday won the Sun Belt Conference title game over South Alabama, 57-56.
“Our staff had about two or three minutes to look at their last five or six plays and their stats, so that we have a little bit of an idea,” Fortier said.
With that, Fortier and her staff retreated to their offices.
“We’re excited to dig in, watch some film and figure out how we can be successful,” Fortier said.
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