LAS VEGAS – Gonzaga’s magnificent start to Monday’s West Coast Conference Tournament semifinal was charged by a 14-0 run that stretched more than four minutes at the Orleans Arena.
The highest-scoring quarter of the season including the Bulldogs making better than 80 percent of their shots, at 13 of 16 from the field. They didn’t miss a 3-pointer, going 3 of 3. They assisted on six baskets. They forced the Pilots into five turnovers.
Gonzaga led by as many as 20 points and still had full control, up 29-14, when Melody Kempton’s jumper missed at the end of the period.
What happened in the first quarter only played a small role in the final result and after Gonzaga sputtered in the second and third, the Bulldogs put themselves in a challenging position to start the fourth – ultimately losing to fourth-seeded Portland, 70-69, and squandering a spot in Tuesday’s championship game.
Gonzaga roared through the opening 10 minutes of Monday’s semifinal – an exceptional start – and outscored Portland 13-6 through the last five – a strong finish – but head coach Lisa Fortier lamented her team’s execution in the moments sandwiched between.
After making 13 field goals in the first quarter, the Bulldogs combined for 14 in the final three, with just five in the first and three in the second. Their 29-point first quarter was followed by a 10-point second and 12-point third. Gonzaga committed a single turnover in the first quarter and 12 in the three that followed.
“I would say, just basketball-wise, you’ve got to be tough,” Fortier said. “I think we lacked some toughness tonight at different stretches of the game and that’s when they went on some of their runs, offensively.
“… Against teams that are bigger or more athletic or problematic in whatever way, you’ve got to be invested in that moment, and you’ve got to give everything you can every moment. You can’t just do it for a couple moments, it has to be all the moments. The middle of the second quarter that nobody cares about matters. The middle of the third quarter that nobody cares about matters. It’s not just the first five minutes, the last five minutes. There’s a bunch of game in between.”
From the second quarter on, the Bulldogs were stifled by the Pilots and their full-court pressure – something that’s enabled Portland to hang with a Gonzaga team that beat its opponents by an average 17 point-per-game margin this season. The Bulldogs were plus-17 in three games against the Pilots.
“They’re just very frantic, they try and make you make decisions you don’t want to make or shots you don’t want to take, necessarily,” forward Jenn Wirth said. “They did get us a few times. We were taking shots that weren’t in the offense or shots we needed at that moment. So they just kind of sped us up, and it’s hard. It’s hard. I’m really proud of the way our point guards handled that. It’s not an easy job at all, but you’re left wondering what you could’ve done better, obviously.”
Portland leaned on its smothering pressure D after made baskets, but the Pilots also switched up their half-court coverage.
“We’ve been zoning probably a little more just to preserve our depth a little bit and we actually went to man for most of the game, which we work on as well, but it just isn’t really who we’ve been most of the season,” Portland coach Michael Meek said.
“That was the biggest change. I thought our energy, ball pressure, activeness, the ability to get deflections and challenge some of their crossovers was a big difference. Defense is where you win.”
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