Even by Gonzaga standards, Senior Day at the Kennel was all of that.
Jessie Loera was crying before the game had begun.
Gonzaga’s other senior, injured guard Katie Campbell, had confessed earlier in the week that being unable to play “would be the hardest part.”
Then she had to do just that.
Truly, the emotions on Saturday were thick enough to cut with a knife.
Fortunately, the Zags had the next best thing, a pair of scissors, and after holding off Santa Clara 53-46, they used it to cut down the net and celebrate another West Coast Conference regular-season championship.
“It never gets old,” said Lisa Fortier, who has won 15 of them as a head coach or assistant.
But as she pointed out, it’s the first title for this particular team, one that had to replace three starters and rely on the leadership of two soft-spoken seniors in Loera and Campbell.
“You never know how things are going to go with any team,” she said.
“When you invest a lot in something, that’s the kind of emotion that comes with it,” Fortier said. “I would rather be emotional knowing that we invested a lot in it, rather than be detached and not really care about it and go through it with dry eyes.”
The payoff came surely and steadily through the season, as a versatile squad found ways to win 25 games out of 27 so far and go 14-1 in the conference.
That’s good enough to clinch a share of the title, though Fortier expects the Zags to claim it outright Thursday night in Los Angeles against Loyola Marymount.
Which brings up the question in the back of everyone’s minds: Was this farewell, or only a brief goodbye?
As it stands, the 15th-ranked Zags are penciled in by the national experts to earn a No. 4 seed in next month’s NCAA Tournament.
That’s good enough to earn home-court advantage in the first two rounds, and a reunion at the Kennel in five weeks’ time.
But those same experts agree that the Zags’ margin for error is close to nil. The road back to the Kennel must go through L.A., Portland and the WCC Tournament in Las Vegas, where last year’s team fell short of the same goal.
But no one wanted to look that far, because that WCC trophy was so shiny and those black championship T-shirts so sleek.
Campbell wore hers while speaking to the crowd. She thanked the fans, her father and the Gonzaga coaches for “taking a chance on me.”
Then she cried as well.
Fifteen minutes later, Loera felt composed enough to reflect on winning titles in as many years.
“That part of it, it’s been so much fun,” Loera said after the game. “But that’s because of my teammates and the coaches, and all the fans who come here every game.”
On Saturday, that included at least two dozen members of Loera’s extended family. As they joined her at center court for pregame introductions, Loera was overcome by emotion.
“To have everyone together means so much,” Loera said. “Family to us means so much, but so does the crowds of people that come to support us.”
Somehow, Loera and her teammates overcame their emotions and play played a basketball game, but that too didn’t come easily.
Leading 13-8 after the first quarter, the Zags went up 21-12 on a tough offensive board and layin from Melody Kempton.
Two minutes later, the eighth-place Broncos (9-16, 3-11 WCC) had cut the lead to four points, but Gonzaga rallied to take a 30-19 lead into halftime.
GU shot only 34% from the field and 17% from long range, but dominated on the boards (42-29) and also held Santa Clara to 37% shooting.
Jenn Wirth led the Zags with 11 points and 15 rebounds.
Still looking disjointed on offense without Campbell, the Zags couldn’t shake Santa Clara at halftime. On the contrary, the lead was down to 41-33 after three quarters.
It was still a seven-point game with less than 100 seconds left, when Loera drove for a layin just a nanosecond before the shot clock expired.
The game won, she got a standing ovation as she left the court.
“I’m really going to miss the crowd,” Loera said.
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