As surprises go in college sports, few were bigger than last year’s University of Portland women’s basketball team.
Picked to finish last in the West Coast Conference, the Pilots wound up fourth. They also won the West Coast Conference Tournament – a nasty surprise for Gonzaga, which fell to the Pilots in the semifinals after leading by 20 points in the first quarter.
Three days later, both teams got another shock when their tickets to the NCAA Tournament were canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Both teams are on top of their games heading into Saturday’s 2 p.m. showdown in the Kennel.
The Zags still have the better resume: 9-2 overall, 4-0 in the WCC and Top 25 rankings in The Associated Press poll and the NCAA’s NET rankings.
“They’re just a fantastic program with a ton of talent and tradition,” Portland coach Michael Meek said earlier this week about GU. “They also have good athletes and all positions … and they’re well-coached and they execute their stuff really well.”
Portland isn’t far behind. The Pilots are unranked but are 3-0 in conference play. They’re also confident, a paradigm shift for a program that hadn’t qualified for the NCAAs in 23 years and had lost 23 in a row to the Zags before last year’s upset.
That confidence begins with Meek, who led George Fox to a pair of Division III title appearances before getting the Portland job in March 2019. Before that, he won five big-school Oregon state titles at Southridge of Beaverton.
“He’s been successful everywhere he’s been, so I’m not that surprised at their success,” GU coach Lisa Fortier said.
A turning point for Portland came almost exactly a year ago in Spokane. The Pilots took a 32-12 lead after 8 minutes, but GU rallied for an improbable 62-57 win.
It was a loss, but a building block nonetheless.
The real payoff came a few weeks later in a win at BYU, followed by the tournament championship.
“I felt like we made steady improvement all year,” Meek said.
One year later, the Pilots are picked to finish third in the WCC behind the Zags and BYU, which is 3-1 in conference play.
The Pilots are led by a pair of Australians who are coming off phenomenal seasons.
Sophomore forward Alex Fowler, the WCC Newcomer of the Year last season, is averaging 16.2 points and better than 7 rebounds.
The conference scoring leader last year, the 6-foot-1 Fowler also is adept at drawing fouls in the paint.
“Anytime you have a versatile player like that, they are problematic,” Fortier said.
“What makes her special is that she’s so selfless,” Meek said. “She just cares about helping her teammates succeed.”
Guard Haylee Andrews, a 5-9 junior, averages 13.6 points and almost five boards. She also scored the winning bucket in Portland’s 70-69 win over GU in last year’s WCC Tournament.
The game also is a homecoming for Portland freshman twins Tyler and Jacksen McCliment-Call. The pair won a state championship at Post Falls in 2017-18 before transferring to University High School. Their mother, Regan McCliment, was on Central Valley’s first state title team in 1993.
Because of COVID-19 protocols, no fans will be allowed at the game.
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