LAS VEGAS – It all seemed so easy, like an extension of warm-ups but with a lot more cheering.
For the first 8 minutes of their West Coast Conference Tournament semifinal game against Portland on Monday, the Gonzaga women found nothing but net.
Fewer than two hours later, they found rock bottom.
Leading by 20 points late in the first quarter, the Zags lost their shooting touch, their hard-nosed attitude on defense and eventually a 70-69 heartbreaker at the Orleans Arena.
GU led by a point with 8 seconds left, but Haylee Andrews won it for the Pilots on a 6-foot runner with 3 seconds left.
“There’s a lot of hurt in that locker room right now,” said head coach Lisa Fortier, who had hoped to add a tournament championship to what has been a historic season.
Instead, the 11th-ranked Zags must hope that their 28-3 record and WCC regular-season title will be enough to keep them among the top 16 teams in the nation on Selection Monday.
If not, March Madness will begin with a plane trip to Corvallis, Oregon, or Tucson, Arizona, instead of a home game or two at the Kennel.
“It’s a bummer that it’s out of our hands now,” said Fortier, whose team is in that position because the Zags lost the handle on a game that couldn’t have started any better.
Eleven seconds in, Jessie Loera drained a sweet 3-pointer, and a minute later Kayleigh Truong did the same.
That made it 10-2, and it got better from there as GU led by scores of 17-2, 23-6 and eventually 29-9 with 2 1/2 minutes left in the first quarter.
But seldom has a script been flipped so suddenly and so cruelly – especially for a GU team seeking redemption after last year’s tough exit at the hands of BYU.
At that point the Pilots – losers of 23 straight to Gonzaga going into Monday’s game – figured to fold. But first-year coach Michael Meek has the Pilots on an upward trajectory; picked to finish last in the preseason poll, they’re now 20-11 and aiming for more.
“Down by 20, I knew it would be a long shot, but I felt like anything was possible,” said Meek, whose club will face San Diego on Tuesday for a chance at its first NCAA appearance since 1994.
“This team is just so tough and so resilient,” said Meek, whose first WCC game came on Dec. 29 at the Kennel, where the Pilots blew a 20-point lead and lost by 5.
The symmetry wasn’t lost on Meek or his players.
“Sometimes when you get a big lead like that early, you all of sudden see the momentum shift,” Meek said. “I think our team really fed off that. It was a great comeback win.”
It was the opposite for GU, which saw the 20-point lead chipped down to 15 by the end of the quarter.
The comeback continued, as GU – which scored a season-high 29 points in the first quarter – shot just 5-for-16 in the second.
By halftime, the lead was down to 39-35, the product, Fortier said, of inconsistent defense as well as cold shooting.
“Defensively we didn’t have it,” Fortier said. “We needed to get stops and we didn’t get enough of them.”
Portland shot well throughout the game, finishing at 48%. Gonzaga shot 45%.
The teams were never separated by more than 5 points in the third quarter, which ended with Portland up 53-51.
In the two previous meetings, Portland faded down the stretch, and it almost happened again.
Gonzaga trailed 63-57 with 5 minutes, 12 seconds to play, but Kaylynne Truong drained a 3-pointer, and her sister hit three foul shots after being fouled at almost the same spot.
That gave GU a 65-63 advantage, but Portland clawed back with a layin by Haylee Andrews and a free throw from Keeley Frawley.
Loera put the Zags back on top with a fast-break layin after a steal by Jenn Wirth, but Alex Fowler scored the last of her game-high 22 points on two foul shots with 25 seconds left.
GU took its final lead, 69-68, on Wirth’s layin with 8 seconds left, but Andrews’ 6-foot runner with 3 seconds to play was the game-winner.
Wirth, a junior forward, finished with 21 points and eight rebounds, both team highs. Townsend had 15 points and Loera 11.
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