It may or may not have been planned, but it was as sincere as it was celebratory. More importantly, it was symbolic.
When ESPN announced the Gonzaga women’s basketball team had received the highest seed in the program’s history, do-everything guard Katie Campbell instantaneously jumped into freshman Gillian Barfield’s arms.
Just like that, these Zags let it be known they have every intention of not only catching each other, but carrying each other right past any obstacles that might face them in Corvallis, Oregon, as they open as a No. 5 seed against Arkansas Little Rock on Saturday.
They’re ready. They’re excited. Their vertical jumps are impressive even from a folding chair.
And, yes, they know what you’re thinking.
They even know you likely saw some of the drama – the good, the bad and the heartbreaking – last week in Las Vegas at the West Coast Conference Tournament.
There was that come-from-behind, double-overtime, last-second-shot, does-the-Orleans-have-enough-defibrillators-for-all-of-us-from-Spokane win over Saint Mary’s to get into the finals. By the way, all that happened after losing two starters to injuries in a game that looked like the WCC and UFC had accidentally switched up referees for the day.
The UFC stands for Ultimate Fighting Championship, where you’re more likely to get laid out than hit a layup. Just like the game against the Gaels.
Still, it was nothing like what they’d experience on their next trip to the court. Playing in a packed arena for a championship is always hard, especially against a team that seems to have your number. It’s incrementally, if not consequently, harder when two of the league’s best and most dependable players can’t suit up for you because of season-ending injuries in the last game.
But having your coach be told she needs to leave during the game because of a family emergency, well, that’s something most teams will never experience, let alone in such a high-profile game.
It would be easy to wonder “what if” … but that’s not really this team’s style.
For a team picked by its peers to win the WCC this year, it still always felt like everyone was really overlooking them. Whispers were that there was no way Gonzaga could be the same after having its star player leave the program a year early. And just as momentum seemed to building.
There was no way the Gonzaga women’s team was going to be the same. They were right.
They were going to be better.
In a season that seemed like so much was working against them, the Zags responded with the program’s best regular season ever.
That No. 12 ranking? Highest ever.
A 27-3 regular-season record? Unprecedented.
Best start? This team’s 16-1 beginning is the new benchmark. And it’s worth noting that loss was to then-No. 1 Notre Dame.
Monday’s No. 5 seed? Yep. Best ever.
In years past, opposing teams could focus on Gonzaga’s seemingly annual superstar and then make the Zags live and die with the rest of the team. This year, the rest of the team was the problem for opponents.
Coach Lisa Fortier could roll out player after player, all understanding their roles and all willing to play different roles when needed. The Zags had depth that could wear you out and versatility that could confuse you.
And a coach who almost delighted – if not dared – others to try to guess what Gonzaga might do next.
It was that willingness to adapt and change, almost at will, that became this team’s most powerful and unpredictable weapon. Well, that and heart.
And it all worked. No matter what happened.
That’s why outsiders see all that this team has endured since March truly became mad and wonder how the Zags could possibly respond, let alone make a run in a tournament that’s famous for it’s one-and-done brutality.
Then you see them.
You see them jump into each other’s arms. You see them high-five over small moments of happiness and togetherness. You see them all leave The Kennel at the same time. You see a team that doesn’t know how to do it any other way.
It’s that realization that comforts them. Their regular season filled with constant player substitutions wasn’t just one for the ages, it was literally and figuratively giving them their NCAA Tournament game plan.
Change is what this team does best. That and catching each other.
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