The character-building benefits of Saturday’s game notwithstanding, Lisa Fortier would rather win by 25.
“It’s really stressful,” Fortier said after the Gonzaga women held off Pacific 68-67 in a contest that was every bit that close – and harrowing.
“I love my job, but it’s taking years off my life,” Gonzaga’s head coach said.
This one had it all – some early hot shooting by Pacific, a career day from GU forward Jenn Wirth and some controversial calls that set the Kennel crowd on edge.
When it was over, 16th-ranked Gonzaga had improved to 16-1 overall and 5-0 in the West Coast Conference, good for a two-game lead on the field.
Still, Fortier and her players have a sense the WCC crowd isn’t that far behind – or a lot closer than on Thursday night, when GU beat Saint Mary’s 74-49.
“I feel like we’ve had this conversation a lot, but everyone wants to beat us,” Wirth said. “We definitely have that target on our backs.”
But with the bull’s-eye in their sights in the final minutes, the Tigers (11-6, 4-2) misfired and GU won its 13th straight game.
Leading 62-61 with under 3 minutes to play and looking for more, the Tigers’ Valerie Higgins missed two free throws.
Wirth evened the score by making 1 of 2 foul shots, then Jessie Loera stood bravely in the paint, drawing a charging foul. A dozen seconds later, Katie Campbell drained a long 3-pointer that gave GU the lead for good, 65-62.
After another two misses by Pacific and a turnover by GU, it fell to Campbell to all but clinch the game with a crossover dribble, setting up a 12-footer that made it 67-62 with 18 seconds to play.
Finally, Loera hit a foul shot with 5 seconds left to give GU a 68-64 lead, leaving Higgins to make a meaningless 3-pointer at the buzzer.
If GU clinched the game with grace, it won with grit. Both teams played a physical style, leading to 45 foul shots between them.
GU shot just 37% in the first half and little better (41%) in the second, while Pacific got hot early on the way to an early 5-point lead.
Meanwhile, LeeAnne Wirth and Jill Townsend both got into foul trouble, and both eventually fouled out.
“That set us back a little,” Jenn Wirth said.
It also didn’t help that the Zags got zero field goals from their bench, though the backups did grab 11 boards to give GU a 38-31 edge on the glass.
Loera, Campbell and Townsend all finished in double figures, but the scoring burden fell on the shoulders of Jenn Wirth.
She responded with perhaps the best game in three years at GU: 10 for 13 from the field for a career-high 24 points, a game-high 10 rebounds, four assists and two blocks.
“She wanted the ball at important times,” said Fortier, whose offensive plays often narrowed to three: posting up Townsend, getting Campbell an open look for 3 – “or throwing it to Jenn at the post.”
That play was money.
“It got heated out there, and Jenn didn’t shy away from that at all,” Fortier said. “She’s a huge leader on our team, and we want people who want to be in the big moment like that.”
After the game, there was no false modesty from Wirth. It was the real thing.
“Everyone has a role,” said Wirth, who also logged almost 34 minutes. “On a lot of plays I was wide-open, and I have my teammates to thank for that.”
Even during the most stressful times of the game, Wirth kept her cool.
With GU up by 3, she blocked a layin by Higgins, who apparently touched the ball as it caromed out of bounds. As the crowd hollered, officials spent almost 5 minutes reviewing the video before giving the ball to Pacific.
Unfazed, Wirth and her teammates went out and finished the job.
“It was exciting, and I think we all learned some lessons from games like this,” she said.
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