Gonzaga struggled to find its rhythm, but gradually pulled away from Eastern Michigan 77-68 in the first game of the Holiday Hoops Classic on Sunday in Las Vegas.
The 25th-ranked Zags improved to 4-2 thanks to a dominant effort on the boards – they outrebounded the Eagles 49 to 27 – and 30 points from their bench.
Though never a nail-biter – GU led by double digits for almost the entire fourth quarter – the game wasn’t in hand until the final two minutes.
That’s nothing new this year; five of Gonzaga’s six games have been decided by 10 points or fewer.
Up by 11 with just under 2½ minutes left, the Zags got a jumper from Jill Townsend to go up 73-60. EMU answered with a 3-pointer, but LeeAnne Wirth’s turnaround jumper with 1:05 left put the game away.
Led by Jenn Wirth’s 18 points, the Zags also received 13 from Melody Kempton and 11 each from Jill Townsend and Kaylynne Truong.
Wirth and Townsend each had 10 rebounds and Kempton 8 – together, that was more than the Eagles could muster.
That also offset another poor day at the free-throw line in a game that included 57 fouls. GU was 23 of 36 (63.9%) while EMU stayed in the game by making 28 of 33 (84.8%).
“That was a crazy game,” GU coach Lisa Fortier said. “Neither team was able to get a rhythm. I really liked how hard we posted up and the way we looked for each other, and I think if we would have made a few more free throws it would have changed the feel of the game.”
On Monday, the Zags will face North Alabama, a 72-56 winner over Tarleton State in the early game at the South Point Arena.
EMU (3-3) made its first three shots to take an 8-4 lead, but Kayleigh Truong’s 3-pointer put GU back on top. The teams weren’t separated by more than four points until late in the first half.
Tied at 27 midway through the second quarter, GU made its move over the next quarter and a half.
Townsend’s 3-pointer with 4:58 left in the half gave GU the lead – for good, as it turned out. A field goal by Jenn Wirth, two foul shots from Cierra Walker and a 3 from transfer Abby O’Connor pushed the advantage to 39-32 at halftime.
GU shot 8 for 13 in the second quarter but only 5 for 19 in the third, but the Zags held EMU to 21% from the floor to take a 57-45 lead in the fourth period.
EMU senior guard Areanna Combs came into the game averaging 20.6 points, but was held to only four before she fouled out in the fourth quarter.
“The rebounding margin was decisive, and we did a great job on their best player,” Fortier said.
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