The target on their backs is bigger than ever this season, with more teams taking aim.
But for the rest of the West Coast Conference, the Gonzaga women’s hold on the regular-season title looks stronger than ever.
It’s called consistency.
The Zags were 28-3 last year and have won 15 of the past 16 titles, including the past four. Jill Townsend, Jenn and LeeAnne Wirth and the rest of this year’s senior class go into their final season with 50 WCC regular-season wins and just four losses.
Even with a COVID-shortened nonconference season, there’s little reason to doubt that this year’s class will be cutting the down the nets at the end of the regular season.
Whether any fans will be on the scene is another matter; that’s out of GU’s control.
However, based on what’s played out so far, GU (5-2) has the edge in talent, experience – and, yes, consistency – to confirm being the preseason favorite among conference coaches.
Two of the other top contenders, BYU and Portland, have underperformed so far, and no one else has shown any signs of challenging the Zags.
Then again, the Pilots were picked to finish last a year ago before shocking everyone and winning the WCC Tournament at GU’s expense. Also last year, it was a seventh-place Saint Mary’s team that shot the lights out, handing GU its only conference defeat.
There are a few concerns going into Monday’s conference opener at Loyola Marymount.
- A shorter nonconference season gave Fortier and her staff less time to establish rotations. The new players – especially Makayla Williams, Lily Scanlon and Yvonne Ejim – didn’t get enough minutes to establish themselves.
- Townsend is averaging 29.4 minutes on the floor at the wing, but that’s misleading. In the three nail-biters in South Dakota, she averaged 34. At this point there isn’t a strong backup for the reigning WCC Player of the Year.
- Depth in the frontcourt. There’s still a drop-off after Melody Kempton, as Anamaria Virjoghe is seeing spot minutes and Eliza Hollingsworth still hasn’t seen the court because of injury. Look for Ejim and transfer Abby O’Connor to get more minutes in the less challenging WCC games.
- Offensive rhythm. “We know that we’re pretty inconsistent, and we saw that physical play can take us out of our rhythm,” Fortier said after a close game against Montana. The GU offense looked smooth against Eastern Michigan and North Alabama.
- Free-throw shooting. The Zags are shooting only 69% so far; last year they made 73% of their foul shots. However, most of the drop-off is attributable to poor starts by Jenn Wirth (48% so far) and Kayleigh Truong (50%). They shot 81% and 74% last year, respectively, so look for the team average to climb.
Another worry – the lack of fans in the Kennel – is out of the Zags’ control. So is the poor showing of the conference so far this year. That could hurt their NCAA seed come March, but after what’s happened in the past nine months, no one is talking about that.
“We’re just glad to have the chance to play,” Townsend said as the season began.
If the first seven games are any indication, the Zags will dominate in the paint. At 6-foot-3 and with three years of experience, the Wirths will be a formidable challenge.
“I expect them to dominate,” said Fortier.
The 23rd-ranked Zags are already doing so on the boards, with a plus-12.6 margin that ranks 19th in Division I. Most of that margin was built in blowout wins last weekend in Las Vegas, but GU was a plus-5 in the previous five games.
In the backcourt, transfer Cierra Walker has made a smooth transition into the starting lineup alongside Truong.
There’s an embarrassment of talent on the bench, with Kaylynne Truong and the newcomers.
And what of the rest of the WCC? So far, the results are unimpressive, leaving the conference ranked 14th in the Rating Percentage Index. No one besides GU is receiving votes, much less a ranking, in the polls.
BYU looks to be the biggest challenge, thanks to the return from an ACL injury of guard Shaylee Gonzalez, the 2019 conference Newcomer of the Year after she averaged 17 points and 5.6 rebounds.
“She makes a big difference because the way she plays makes it better for everybody else,” BYU Coach Jeff Judkins said.
Also back are senior Paisley Johnson Harding (15.2ppg) and 6-7 senior post Sara Hamson (4.7 blocked shots).
BYU is 4-1 with a 16-point win over LSU last month in Las Vegas. However, a day later, the Cougars lost by 37 to a Washington team that’s picked to finish 11th in the Pac-12.
Portland (3-3) also has lost to the Huskies, 83-56 in Seattle. They also dropped a home game to Montana State of the Big Sky Conference, 80-67.
“We’re still really, really young,” said second-year Coach Michael Meek, whose biggest job may be managing the Pilots’ great expectations.
“It was obviously an awesome experience winning (the WCC Tournament), but we jumped pretty far, pretty fast,” Meek said.
Most of Portland’s key players return, including forward Alex Fowler, who led the conference in scoring ( 18 ppg) as a freshman and earned WCC Tournament MVP honors.
Her fellow Australian, junior guard Haylee Andrews, averaged 16 points and 5.5 assists last year.
Another surprise team last year was San Diego, which was picked to finish eighth but ended up second thanks to guards Myah Pace (11.9 ppg, 92 steals) and Jordyn Edwards.
However, the Toreros lack experience in the frontcourt.
Saint Mary’s will play without their best player, preseason all-WCC pick Sam Simons (16.3 ppg), who elected to opt out of the season because of COVID worries and stay in her native Australia.
Pacific returns seniors Valerie Higgins (16.5 ppg, 9.1 rpg) and Brooklyn McDavid (14.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg). The Tigers have played just three games, defeating LSU and UNLV.
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