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Gonzaga women get off to quick start, top Little Rock in NCAA Tournament opener

UPDATED: Sat., March 23, 2019, 8:39 p.m.

CORVALLIS, Ore. – As halftime pep talks go, this one was rather abstract.

But it got the job done, much like the Gonzaga women took care of Little Rock 68-51 in a first-round NCAA Tournament game Saturday afternoon at Gill Coliseum.

The message from GU coach Lisa Fortier and her staff: Appreciate the valleys as well as the peaks, and treat them both the same.

The peaks came early, and what heights they were. Quick on the break and fierce in the defensive paint, the Zags took leads of 7-0, 16-0 and eventually 21-2 as the first quarter came to a merciful end for the Trojans.

“They hit us pretty hard,” said Little Rock guard Tori Lasker, who vowed to answer back because “we don’t stop playing until the buzzer.”

But neither did the Zags, who kept the lead and their composure to improve to 29-4 and advance to a second-round game Monday night against host Oregon State.

With a 19-point lead down to 12 at halftime, one of the assistants told the Zags to “find a way to be OK with not being OK – that we were a little bit tired and things weren’t going the way we planned,” Fortier said.

The Zags are getting accustomed to that, especially after season-ending injuries to Laura Stockton and Jill Townsend that forced Fortier “to sub a little differently.”

And keep the starters in longer. Not surprisingly, starters Jessie Loera, Katie Campbell and Chandler Smith each logged 31 minutes or more, with Zykera Rice and LeeAnne Wirth just less than 30.

The pace slowed in the second half, with Gonzaga unable to build on the lead and Little Rock failing to make a dent.

GU’s lead ranged between nine and 14 for the entire third quarter.

Backup Louise Forsyth, who played a season-high 17 minutes, hit a 3-pointer to put Gonzaga up 42-28 midway through the third quarter, but Lasker answered a few minutes later and it was a 10-point game.

Little Rock (21-11) isn’t the deepest team in the tournament; four Trojans played 34 minutes or more. That seemed to catch up with them in the fourth quarter.

Campbell’s 3-pointer with 6 1/2 minutes left pushed the lead to 58-42. It was her final score of the night and capped one of her best shooting days of the season: 5 for 6 from long range.

“I was feeling my shot in warm-ups and talking to myself positively,” said Campbell, who finished with 15 points. … “Everything led up to this, from practice yesterday. I needed my mind set right and my feet ready, and I just couldn’t think when I shot the ball.”

Three minutes later, with the lead back down to 10, Loera and Rice combined for the biggest play of the afternoon.

With her sixth and final assist, Loera whipped the ball to Rice, who overpowered two defenders for a short jumper and a foul.

Rice pumped her arms as teammates gathered around. She made the free throw, giving Gonzaga a 62-49 lead with barely 3 minutes left.

GU wrapped up the game at the foul line – where it went 11 for 12 on the day – to win the program’s first NCAA game since 2015.

Fortier was here for that one, too, but wasn’t sure what to expect on Saturday, especially without the services of Stockton and Townsend.

Some pundits made this game their upset special, noting that every year, a No. 12 seed manages to knock off a No. 5.

As Charlie Creme of ESPN noted on Friday, “Gonzaga isn’t the same team that won the WCC regular season and upset Stanford early in the season.”

In the first quarter, the Bulldogs were even better.

hey held Little Rock to 1-for-13 shooting while going 8 for 17 at the other end. LeeAnne Wirth – “one of the best interior defenders we’ve had recently,” Fortier said – did the heavy lifting with a game-high nine boards.

The Zags also held Little Rock forward Ronjanae DeGray to six points, well below her season average of 14.8.

Rice overcame the Trojans’ physical play with six rebounds – three on the offensive glass – along with a game-high 18 points.

“We really dug ourselves a hole that first quarter,” Little Rock coach Joe Foley said. “After that, I thought our kids worked extremely hard.

“But they were a bit more physical than we were, and it took us a while to adjust.”

Little Rock stormed back, thanks to a pair of 3-pointers from Lasker, who finished with 16 points.

The lead was down to nine late in the half, but Campbell hit another 3-pointer with 49 seconds left, giving GU a 32-20 lead at halftime.

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