The stakes couldn’t be much higher for the Gonzaga women on Thursday night at BYU.
A win over the second-place Cougars would all but clinch the West Coast Conference regular-season title and keep alive the Zags’ chances for a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.
But most important, it’s BYU.
“It’s no lie, they’re big rivals,” GU guard Jill Townsend said after a 63-56 win over the Cougars earlier this month in Spokane.
“It’s definitely a get-up game for us.”
That goes double for BYU, where motivation will be sky-high when the teams tip off at 5 p.m. at the Marriott Center in Provo, Utah.
The Cougars (14-3, 10-2 WCC) sit squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
A quality win over the Zags (18-2, 13-0) might just put them over the top and would place them within a game of first place in the WCC standings.
It’s also Senior Week at BYU, which closes its home schedule Saturday against Portland. Under Utah state COVID-19 guidelines, BYU has allowed players’ guests to attend home games.
For Gonzaga, the game represents the biggest measuring stick of the regular season. The Zags have won 17 straight dating back to November, but were taken to the limit by BYU on Feb. 2.
GU led for most of the game, but BYU tied the game with 2 minutes left before Cierra Walker hit a pair of 3-pointers from the left corner to give GU some breathing room.
“It was never comfortable,” Townsend said. “I know it’s going to be even tougher on their home court.”
In that game, the Zags were plus-10 on the boards and held BYU star Shaylee Gonzales to 12 points, barely half her season average.
The Zags also rose to the challenge of BYU’s bruising defense, drawing fouls and making 17 of 22 free-throw attempts.
In the end, that was more than enough to make up for an off shooting night for Jenn Wirth (2 for 10), and a disjointed half-court offense that produced just nine assists.
“We played well at times in that game,” Zags head coach Lisa Fortier said this week.
“But we had some defensive letdowns.”
Fortier said she hopes to do a better job against BYU guard Paisley Johnson Harding, a senior from Everett who scored 17 points.
“We left (Townsend) on an island against her,” Fortier said.
“And I thought we overvalued some of their nonperimeter players.”
Last weekend, Harding scored a season-high 28 points as BYU won its fifth straight game, 79-61 at Saint Mary’s.
Fortier said she tries to treat each game the same.
“Maybe I’m just getting more mature, but I feel like it’s just the next one,” Fortier said. “But I know the players will be a little more excited.”
Fortier also said she’s trying not to “overvalue” the game’s possible impact on the national picture, although she acknowledged that a loss would hurt GU’s chances of reaching the No. 4 line in the NCAAs.
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