When Gonzaga needed someone to step up, Yvonne Ejim raised her hand.
Then she raised her game to a new level, helping carry Gonzaga to a remarkable 43-42 win over BYU in the West Coast Conference Tournament championship game.
The first start of her career came courtesy of food poisoning that sidelined starter LeeAnne Wirth and backup Anamaria Virjoghe.
By coach Lisa Fortier’s reckoning, the freshman from Edmonton, Alberta, had already earned the start.
Only 6-foot-1, Ejim had shown the ability and the grit to mix it up deep in the paint, much like junior Melody Kempton.
“We call her ‘Baby Melody,’ because she plays with the same kind of energy,” Fortier said.
Holding her own through three quarters, Ejim found another level in the fourth. Of her 13 points, eight came in the final 10 minutes and were the key to Gonzaga’s improbable comeback.
Ejim also had a team-high nine rebounds.
“She’s going to be a great player for us, and today she was a great player,” Fortier said.
There were other heroes.
Also in their first starts for Gonzaga, guard Kaylynne Truong had eight points and Abby O’Connor five.
Sophomore Eliza Hollingsworth kept the fourth-quarter rally going with a surprise 3-pointer.
But even as senior Jill Townsend basked in the glow of her winning shot, she recalled Monday night and the onset of the stomach flu afflicting half the team.
“The doctors, the trainers, they did an amazing job,” Townsend said.
Townsend wanted the final shot
During the final timeout, there was little doubt who would get the ball with Gonzaga down by one point against BYU.
During their annual retreat before the season begins, the Zags like to play some character-testing games.
One of them included a question: Who, deep down, really wants to take the last shot of the game?
As Fortier recalled, only Townsend raised her hand.
“She’s that kind of person, that kind of player,” Fortier said. “There really wasn’t any question.”
And with only six-tenths of a second to play, Townsend was the best option, the player best able to catch an inbounds pass and immediately shoot.
“They know I could get it off,” Townsend said. “That they put their trust in me, it means a lot to me.”
As Kayleigh Truong threw the inbounds pass, Jenn Wirth threw up an impenetrable screen on a BYU defender.
But as Townsend curled around the top of the key, she was shadowed by Sarah Hamson, BYU’s 6-foot-7 post.
“I don’t know how I got around her,” said Townsend, who in one motion took the ball and pushed it toward the basket with her right hand, inches above Hamson’s arm.
Townsend, Ejim on all-tourney team
Townsend and Ejim were selected to the All-WCC Tournament team after leading the Zags to the championship.
Townsend, a senior from Okanogan, Washington, scored the winning basket while Ejim had a game-high 13 points and nine rebounds,
Townsend also had 14 points and 10 boards in the Zags’ semifinal win over Santa Clara.
The five-player team also included Shaylee Gonzales of BYU, Merle Wiehl of Santa Clara and Khari Clark of Loyola Marymount.
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