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Jessie Loera, Jill Townsend help No. 12 Gonzaga grind out victory against San Diego

UPDATED: Thu., Jan. 30, 2020

Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Jessie Loera (15) performs a layup as San Diego guard Myah Pace (10) defends during the first half of a college basketball game, Thurs., Jan. 30, 2020, in the McCarthey Athletic Center. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Jessie Loera (15) performs a layup as San Diego guard Myah Pace (10) defends during the first half of a college basketball game, Thurs., Jan. 30, 2020, in the McCarthey Athletic Center. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Distractions were everywhere as the Gonzaga women took the court Thursday night against San Diego.

Behind them – barely – were the injuries to a pair of key players, LeeAnne Wirth and Kayleigh Truong. Ahead lay Saturday’s big game against BYU.

And who couldn’t help but be distracted by all that talk of running the table in the West Coast Conference and hosting a couple of games in the NCAA Tournament?

But these Zags were a pretty focused bunch Thursday – especially after the Toreros took an early 6-point lead – and ground their way to a 57-46 win.

“It really was a grind,” coach Lisa Fortier said.

There was no other word for it in a game that saw the Zags win despite turning the ball over a season-high 24 times, getting just 6 points from their starting forwards and shooting just 29% from beyond the arc.

“Nothing came easy tonight,” Fortier said. “Every shot we made seemed like a bit of a relief, and there wasn’t a play that went by seamlessly.”

Fittingly, the 12th-ranked Zags improved to 21-1 overall and 10-0 in the West Coast Conference with more grit than grace.

They held the Toreros (12-9 overall, 6-4 in the WCC) to 33% shooting and just 13% from long range.

It’s the 11th time this season the Zags have limited an opponent to fewer than 50 points.

As usual, the Zags got much of that grit from junior wing Jill Townsend, who put in another double-double (10 points and 10 boards).

However, her biggest play came midway through the fourth quarter as an 18-point GU lead had shrunk to 7 with 4 1/2 minutes left in the game. Katie Campbell let fly with a 3 from the corner, but the ball caromed off the far rim.

Townsend outmuscled a San Diego defender, then moved around her for a reverse layin. Thirty seconds later, LeeAnne Wirth’s rebound of a Torero miss led to Jessie Loera’s sixth assist of the night, a quick pass that forward Melody Kempton converted into a 53-42 lead.

In their first matchup earlier this month, the Zags utterly dominated San Diego on the boards, 40 to 17.

“I’m sure they didn’t like that,” Townsend said. “But we worked hard too, all week in practice.”

The margin on the glass was smaller this time, 40 to 29, but still telling. Seven of those boards fell into the hands of Kempton, who put in another solid game with 13 points, seven boards and three blocks.

She also managed to block out some past failures at the free-throw line.

Coming into the game she was hitting just 52%, but came through Thursday by making 5 of 6.

“I’ve been practicing a lot, so it’s nice to finally show some results,” Kempton said.

Kempton, a backup all year, got two starts last week when LeeAnne Wirth was sidelined with an ankle injury.

Back in her former role on Thursday, she still got big minutes as Jenn Wirth picked up her second personal foul early in the second quarter.

“She’s always so steady,” Fortier said of Kempton.

The Zags looked anything but steady in the early going. Missing their first three shots, they fell behind 6-0.

However, Truong nailed a shot clock-beating three, Loera got a layup, and Townsend drove hard for a bucket and a foul to give GU the lead for good, 15-12 early in the second quarter.

Up 28-18 at halftime, the Zags opened the third quarter with a steal and a layin from Campbell. A few minutes later Loera and Truong drained a pair of threes to give GU a 45-28 advantage.

Loera finished with a game-high 14 points on 6-for-7 shooting, plus six assists to offset her season-high 10 turnovers.

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