PROVO, Utah – Nine months later, it still stings.
The Gonzaga women won 29 games last year and lost only five, but three of those defeats came at the hands of West Coast Conference rival BYU.
Each was more painful than the last. There was the two-point loss in Provo that halted the best start in program history, the would-be payback game in Spokane that also went BYU’s way and finally the emotionally wrenching WCC title game crash in Las Vegas.
Gonzaga recovered to reach the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but none of the Zags have forgotten.
“We have a lot to prove against BYU,” forward Jenn Wirth said Tuesday as the Zags prepared for Thursday night’s game at the Marriott Center.
Asked on Tuesday whether beating BYU would make her list of New Year’s resolutions, GU head coach Lisa Fortier shook her head.
“I want to beat BYU every time,” said Fortier, who reckons the Cougars and Saint Mary’s as GU’s top rivals in the WCC.
Then again, Fortier has always played the long game. That’s why she’s 73-17 in the WCC regular season, with four regular-season titles in five years.
The goal every year is to win titles, not grudge matches, and put together an NCAA Tournament-worthy résumé regardless of how things go in Las Vegas.
So far, so good: The Zags are 12-1 and ranked 17th in the Associated Press and eighth in RPI as they chase a potential top-four seed in the NCAAs.
Obviously, a loss to BYU would hurt those chances.
“We want to win the next game, it’s an important one,” Fortier said. “But we’re trying not to overdo it. When you play a rivalry team, everyone is already hyped up, so I’m downplaying it.”
For BYU, on the other hand, this is one of the biggest games of the season. Picked to finish second behind Gonzaga in the preseason poll, the Cougars went 5-5 in the nonconference season.
Four of those losses came to Pac-12 schools and the other to Mountain West Conference favorite Boise State. With an RPI of 118, the Cougars have little margin for error for an NCAA at-large bid.
“It’s been hard,” BYU head coach Jeff Judkins told the Provo Daily Herald last week. “You lose games and you think about what you can do. Usually, the only way to change how you feel is to go out the next night, playing well and winning.
“We need to get our confidence and our swagger back.”
The Cougars did just that last weekend in Southern California, sweeping Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine to open WCC play at 2-0.
The win at Pepperdine also marked Judkins’ 400th win at BYU, where he’s been head coach since 2001.
“What this milestone means to me is that I’ve been lucky to have coached great players and I’ve also had a group of great coaches over the years,” Judkins said after the win.
Some of those players await the Zags on Thursday night.
The most important is 6-foot-7 post Sara Hamson, who already has 44 blocks this season. An imposing frontcourt also includes 6-3 Shalae Salmon and 6-2 Jasmine Moody.
Point guard Maria Albiero averages 4.1 assists, but most of the scoring damage is done by Brenna Chase-Drollinger (12.1 points and 4.9 rebounds per game) and Paisley Johnson (14.7 ppg and shooting 42% from 3).
BYU’s top two scorers last year, Chase-Drollinger and Johnson, figure to play nearly the entire game against GU.
“Their guards are phenomenal,” Fortier said. “They can shoot it and they can drive it.”
That also presents a problem for the GU bigs.
“I need to help when their guards are penetrating or shooting,” Wirth said. “But that leaves the big girl under the basket, so keeping an eye on knowing that she’s there, that means boxing her out and doubling if we can.”
The teams will meet again Feb. 1 in Spokane.
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