The Gonzaga women know better than anyone that anything can happen in the postseason.
The epitome of consistency during the past two West Coast Conference seasons, the Zags have fallen short in their past two trips to the WCC Tournament.
There’s no guarantee that won’t happen again, but the Zags’ defense and dominance on the boards appear to make them less susceptible to an upset.
“I’m a coach, so I’m paranoid about everything,” the Bulldogs’ Lisa Fortier said last week before the Zags flew to Las Vegas ahead of Monday’s 11 a.m. semifinal against Santa Clara at the Orleans Arena.
“But I’m glad we’re not casual in those things,” added Fortier, whose squad is 21-3 overall and ranked 18th in The Associated Press poll.
GU has also won 20 of its past 21 games and won the WCC regular-season title with a 16-1 record, two games ahead of BYU. Asked whether she would have taken that record when the WCC season began, Fortier nodded.
“I think it’s really difficult to go undefeated – it’s a real challenge,” Fortier said. “I’m really proud of our players.
“I thought we were really good at studying, mentally focused … I don’t think we ever thought we just had to show up.”
Dominance on the glass – keyed by senior forwards Jenn and LeeAnne Wirth – has been the Zags’ identity this year. At plus-13.8, they rank fourth in Division I.
They also rank 12th nationally in scoring defense, giving up just 56 points a game.
At the other end of the court, GU is 12th in field-goal percentage (47.4%) and 11th in assists per game (17.8).
Yet another good sign, should they face a tight game in the WCCs: The Zags are hitting their free throws at a superb rate: 58 out of 69, or 84%, in the past five games.
On the flip side, GU allowed opponents to get to the line 93 times during that same span.
The other major concern is 3-point shooting, which has been subpar lately.
In the past five games, GU is shooting 30.4% (28 for 92) from long range, and that’s with Jill Townsend hitting 10 of her past 18 attempts. The rest of the team is 18 for 72, or 25%.
“We’ve been streaky,” said Fortier, who also feels that “turnovers are a little inconsistent right now.”
With eight days off between games, the Zags spent practices last week focusing in what phases of the game gave them trouble against teams in their half of the bracket.
For Gonzaga, the stakes are the same as last year: a high seed in the NCAA Tournament. At this point, they’re penciled in at a No. 4 or 5 seed. A loss in the semifinals, however, could drop them to a No. 6, depending on what happens in other conference tournaments.
Fortier conceded that the rest of the WCC has even more motivation, because their seasons will end with a loss.
The Zags have no shortage of motivation, however. Two years ago in Las Vegas, the Zags lost guards Jill Townsend and Laura Stockton to injury in the semifinals.
The next day, “I lost my brother,” said Fortier, who ran out of the Orleans Arena late in the championship game against BYU after learning that her brother, Hayden Mispley, had fallen ill.
Mispley died the following day from complications from muscular dystrophy.
Last year, the Zags lost a 20-point lead and eventually their semifinal game against Portland. Three days later, the NCAA Tournament was canceled over fears of COVID-19.
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