In every sense, the Gonzaga women had to dig a little deeper Thursday night.
Plagued by foul trouble and a physical San Francisco team, the Zags went to their bench. When it mattered most, the backups made some clutch plays to help beat the Dons 79-66 in a West Coast Conference game in the Kennel.
With the game still in doubt early in the fourth quarter and starting forward Jenn Wirth on the bench with four fouls, backup center Anamaria Virjoghe dug for a loose ball.
Ten seconds later, backup Melody Kempton overcame two USF defenders for a rebound and putback to give the Zags a 68-53 advantage with 6½ minutes left.
“I just try to bring more energy, play some good defense and help the team,” said Virjoghe, who had five points and four rebounds in 15 minutes.
“And I think I can help energy for the players who come back in later,” Virjoghe said.
Sure enough, Jenn Wirth returned midway through the fourth quarter, helping put the Dons away.
The 17th-ranked Zags also got a big game from starting guard Jill Townsend, who scored a team-high 19 points. She fouled out, but with only 1 minute, 8 seconds left and the game safely in hand.
Safe, too, is GU’s two-game lead over BYU in the WCC standings.
The Zags (17-2) are 12-0 in the conference going into Saturday’s home game against Santa Clara.
GU visits BYU on Thursday.
“It’s definitely not the decisive win we were looking for,” Townsend said. “We’ve got a lot of stuff we can work on.”
Against a team they beat by 24 points three weeks ago in San Francisco, the Zags struggled at times to defend in transition. They also committed 24 fouls, but the Dons didn’t take full advantage, going just 16 for 26 at the foul line.
USF (10-9, 6-7) came into the game with six consecutive wins, but that hot streak lasted for roughly half of the first quarter as a 9-6 USF lead turned into a 15-9 deficit.
The pattern continued all night. The Dons closed to 23-18 early in the second quarter, only to give up back-to-back 3-pointers from Abby O’Connor and Cierra Walker.
Kempton and Virjoghe each scored on layins to cap a 15-0 run, but USF again got within single digits before Kaylynne Truong’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer gave GU 45-33 halftime lead.
Gonzaga shot 7 for 14 from long range in the first half and outrebounded USF 24-9.
The Zags again looked to pull away in the third quarter. Another layup from Virjoghe made it 56-41, but the Dons got within nine as Townsend, Jenn Wirth and Kempton dealt with foul trouble.
“A lot of bounces didn’t go our way, but we continued to grind on offense,” GU head coach Lisa Fortier said after the Zags’ 22nd straight home win and 16th overall.
Reminded that GU had dominated USF in the team’s first meeting, Fortier said that “it’s never a problem with overconfidence.”
Fortier said that teams on the losing end often find more motivation in the film room before the rematch.
“We never know what kind of adjustments they’re going to make,” Fortier said.
USF never did compensate for the Zags’ height advantage, getting outrebounded 44-26.
Gonzaga finished 29 for 58 from the field, and even better from long range (11 for 21, 52%).
Jenn Wirth had 14 points and nine rebounds to narrowly miss out on a double-double. LeeAnne Wirth added eight points and nine boards.
Kayleigh Truong had 11 points and five assists.
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