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Gonzaga women not allowing limited bench to be an excuse ahead of BYU showdown

UPDATED: Wed., Jan. 1, 2020

Gonzaga coach Lisa Fortier reacts after a play during a West Coast Conference basketball game against Portland on Dec. 29, 2019, at the McCarthey Athletic Center in Spokane. (James Snook / For The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga coach Lisa Fortier reacts after a play during a West Coast Conference basketball game against Portland on Dec. 29, 2019, at the McCarthey Athletic Center in Spokane. (James Snook / For The Spokesman-Review)

For Gonzaga head coach Lisa Fortier, the best takeaway from Sunday’s narrow escape against Portland came in the film room.

“Our players took the film well,” Fortier said after practice Tuesday afternoon, two days after GU rallied from 20 points down for a 62-57 win in the West Coast Conference opener.

“There were a lot of teachable moments,” said Fortier, who’s looking for a stronger start in Thursday’s grudge match at BYU.

“Usually, we’re good at being ready to go from the jump,” Fortier said of the slow start against the lowly Pilots. “I know that seasons go like that, that it’s not a straight march.”

That march is going ahead with a tighter rotation – a product of injuries, game circumstances and the plain fact that some players, such as Jill Townsend, can’t be easily sent to the bench.

Gonzaga is ranked 17th and off to a 12-1 record that matches last year’s program best, but suddenly depth is becoming a bigger issue, in the frontcourt and Townsend’s spot – the wing.

Last year, Fortier rarely needed any player to go 30 minutes or more. On Sunday, Townsend, Campbell and Jenn Wirth each logged 32 minutes or more.

“That’s not our preference,” Fortier said. “It was a weird game – circumstances dictated a lot of that.”

Depth has been an issue since the season began. It started with a shoulder injury that has sidelined wing Kylee Griffen for a second straight season.

Soon after, true freshman Eliza Hollingsworth aggravated an ankle injury. She’s out of a protective boot and working on a special treadmill that eases pressure on the affected body part. It’s still unclear when Hollingsworth will return, Fortier said.

“We would like to have her out there for a lot of reasons,” she said.

The biggest reason is that the Zags are effectively down to three bodies in the paint: starters Jenn and LeeAnne Wirth and backup Melody Kempton.

A fourth, 6-foot-5 sophomore Anamaria Virjoghe, averages 8 minutes per game but didn’t see the court against Portland even as LeeAnne Wirth got into foul trouble.

That meant big minutes for Kempton, the sophomore from Post Falls who has turned out to be one of the most important bench players for the Zags in recent years.

On Sunday, Kempton logged almost 26 minutes and pulled down a game-high nine rebounds. That matched her court time in the top 20 showdown earlier this month against Missouri State. Kempton also played 33 minutes at Stanford.

“I don’t bat an eye with Mel in there,” Fortier said.

The other key bench player is true freshman Kayleigh Truong, a natural point guard who lately has backed up Townsend in addition to starting point Jessie Loera. On Sunday, Truong played 22 minutes.

For nearly the entire roster, minutes against Portland were almost the same as the Missouri State game. That wasn’t the plan.

In the Portland game, Townsend was so effective (18 points, 6 of 9 from the field, five steals) that she stayed in “because things were going better when she was on the court,” Fortier said.

That’s true across the board, she added.

“It’s not a matter of how do we get her off the court, but how do we get the others to rise up?” Fortier said.

Everyone is working hard to make that happen, said Fortier, who noted that junior guard Louise Forsyth is “working out all the time, trying to get better,” while Virjoghe is picking up confidence, if not minutes,

“She’s talented enough and she’s long, but she doesn’t have the experience,” Fortier said of Virjoghe. “But the experience piece is on (the staff). We have to get her that game experience.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg thing. We’ll see.”

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