CORVALLIS, Oregon – Now who’s feeling vulnerable?
With all they’ve endured in the last two weeks, it should have been the Gonzaga women.
The experts even said so: Without Laura Stockton and Jill Townsend, the Zags were the most likely first-round upset victim in this NCAA Tournament.
Then GU jumped all over Little Rock, 68-51, in a first-round NCAA Tournament game Saturday at Gill Coliseum. Only the Trojans were feeling vulnerable.
Three hours later, local heavyweight Oregon State finally got out of its own way to eke out a five-point win over 13th-seeded Boise State – in overtime.
Survive and advance, as they say – and take nothing for granted, especially if you’re an OSU fan who watched the Zags knock off an even more highly regarded Beaver squad back in 2015.
“Nothing surprises me,” OSU coach Scott Rueck said Sunday afternoon as both teams looked to an intriguing second-round matchup Monday night. (ESPN, 6 p.m.)
Both teams have faced more than their share of adversity this season – and in Gonzaga’s case, a span that goes back 12 months.
Last March, the Zags lost Jill Barta, their leading scorer and rebounder, who left the program a year early. Injuries to forward Jenn Wirth and point guard Jessie Loera altered the starting lineup.
Attitudes didn’t change a lick, “because our seniors won’t take any excuses,” coach Lisa Fortier said. “They’ve kind of demanded that they give everything they have.”
Last week they gave even more. When Stockton and Townsend went down, everyone else stepped up.
Their uniforms lacking sleeves, emotions were worn on their chests: “HM,” for Hayden Mispley, the younger brother of Fortier who died the day after the West Coast Conference Tournament.
“It was to show our appreciation for the way Lisa’s family has been here for my entire four years, and to commemorate him,” senior Zykera Rice said.
OSU has endured setbacks too, the biggest being the loss of high-scoring guard Kat Tudor in early January. The Beavers are 25-7 but aren’t the same without her, some say.
Once ranked in the top 10, they lurched to the finish line then tripped over it by losing to a 10-20 Washington team in the Pac-12 Tournament.
It was the Beavers’ fourth loss in 10 games, a disturbing trend for a team that reached the Elite Eight last year.
Fifteen days later – the longest layoff for any team in the NCAAs – the Beavers looked rusty against Boise State. They shot poorly from beyond the arc (4 of 15) and from the foul line, until overtime.
Then they found a way.
The Beavers have plenty of paths to victory. Point guard Destiny Slocum averages 16 points and 3.5 assists, and is such a dual threat that Fortier said Sunday that GU’s hope is to merely contain her.
OSU also dominates inside, outrebounding opponents by almost 10 per game, and as a team shoots 39 percent from long range.
If that sounds a lot like BYU – a three-time winner over the Zags this year – Fortier agreed.
“These guys shoot the ball just as well,” Fortier said. “We have to get a couple of steps closer – you have to defend good players if you want to win games.”
The Zags (29-4) counter with a strong inside game and rejuvenated 3-point shooting led by Katie Campbell (who was 5 for 6 against Little Rock).
“They have very few weaknesses,” Rueck said after he and his staff spent “most of the night” analyzing the Zags. “They make very few mistakes and a great inside presence.”
They’ll need some presence of mind, as well. The OSU crowd will be like nothing the Zags have seen this year.
“For me personally it fuels the fire,” Wirth said. “I’m really excited for that different atmosphere, where people are cheering against us.”
The winner faces one more bit of adversity, though a welcome one: about 36 hours to regroup and catch a plane to Albany, New York, for a Sweet 16 game Friday night against top-seed Louisville.
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