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John Blanchette: With a top-10 ranking on the horizon, Gonzaga women’s basketball is more than ready to step into the national spotlight

Jeff Judkins is one of those rare head coaches in college basketball who wanders out from the locker room to take in even the earliest portion of warmups instead of hiding out until the anthem. Which, in some gyms, could make him an easy target.

But not so much on Saturday afternoon at McCarthey Athletic Center, where a sellout crowd outfitted predominantly in white shirts gathered to watch another showdown against rival Brigham Young.

Not to worry. Just a T-shirt giveaway. No moral backslide into mocking Mormon missionaries intended.

“This is a good place to play,” BYU’s longtime women’s coach said, in something of a Yelp review. “It’s exciting to come here. The fans are knowledgeable. I probably had five or six of them come up before the game and say, hey, congrats on 400 wins and we love watching your teams. That’s good for basketball.”

Then came the 59-44 beating from Gonzaga. Hard on the pride, but good for basketball, too, in a related way.

It was win No. 20 in a row for the Bulldogs – three shy of the program record and the longest active streak in the nation. Come this week, the school and the West Coast Conference could have their first top-10 women’s team in history.

Which leaves Gonzaga coach Lisa Fortier not conflicted, exactly, but at least multi-tracking trains of thought.

“I hesitate to create any extra pressure,” she said. “But in the locker room I’m thinking, and I do know the No. 8 team (UCLA) lost yesterday and the No. 11 team (DePaul) lost. We’ve never been ranked in the top 10, and I’m starting to think about those things – even while I’m downplaying them to the players and making sure they focus on the task at hand and other important things, like what the COG is serving for lunch today.”

The focus seemed a little fuzzy for a while Saturday.

The Zags fell behind 16-7 two and a half minutes into the second quarter, at which point they finally got junior Jill Townsend her first shot – which seemed akin to firing up the car on a frosty morning and driving a mile down the road before pulling over to scrape the windshield.

By the second half, the Zags held BYU to a single field goal over a span of 12 minutes and all was right again – with the crushing exception of seeing senior Katie Campbell carried off the floor with a knee injury. The prognosis was all over her teammates’ faces as they exited the locker room post-game.

But they’ll carry on, because them’s the rules.

The Bulldogs now head out for roadies at Pacific and Saint Mary’s, two WCC middle-of-the-packers whose average home audiences combined don’t amount to 20% of GU’s 5,641. But then the emotional swings home and away for the Zags are a way of life; their season attendance outstrips the other nine WCC schools by more than 15,000.

“At some places,” acknowledged Fortier, “the atmosphere can be like you’re going to scrimmage.”

This is Spokane’s great gift to her program. Sellouts – Saturday’s was No. 4 this season – and adulation with a top-10 feel, ranking notwithstanding. In the West, only Oregon – where former GU coach Kelly Graves’ program has doubled its audience in two years – outdraws the Zags.

Now it’s a ticket so hot that seven other WCC men’s teams can’t demand as high a price. Indeed, because of the disparate student allotments and affordability, GU’s women actually sell more season tickets than the men.

The Kennel may be the house that Courtney Vandersloot first filled, but the continued success under Fortier has topped it off.

“When you win games,” said athletic director Mike Roth, “people want to be a part of it.”

Even three games clear in the WCC standings, there’s not much big-picture gazing from the coach or prestige-worry over streaks. She saved her fretting for three lackluster practices last week (“though after seeing Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s, maybe Monday’s was better than I thought,” she said) and the daily challenges.

Which doesn’t mean that a spot in the top 10 wouldn’t be a gas.

“Not a feather in the cap,” she said, “but there are some big shoes that I’m still filling. Kelly was a great coach, and we worked hard together on things we did here. But my staff has been together six years and we’re working on great things, too. It’s a great way to show our program continues to improve. There are still Gonzaga haters out there, and WCC haters. Recruits still question you. I want everybody to know that if you come here and work hard and believe in yourself and the team, we can do great things. If I have to hear ‘little Gonzaga up in Spokane’ again – our guys have been in the national championship game.

“C’mon. It’s a basketball place.”