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Gonzaga Women's Basketball
Sports >  Gonzaga women

John Blanchette: When times got tough for the Gonzaga women, Jill Townsend stepped into the spotlight

UPDATED: Tue., March 9, 2021

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

Every good scrap deserves a good scrapbook, and it was our luck the Gonzaga Bulldogs made one as they went along Tuesday afternoon in Las Vegas.

So what was your favorite snapshot?

  • The relentlessness of – until now – sparingly used freshman Yvonne Ejim, who single-handedly shot the Zags back into the game to start the fourth quarter?
  • The almost sheepish smile of Eliza Hollingsworth – another freshman who plays even less – after burying a nervy 3-pointer in the gut of the game?
  • Probably Jill Townsend’s game-winner, right? Two liters of IV before the game, 0 for 5 during it, four minutes on the bench before getting the call and all of 0.6 of a second to make the Bulldog women West Coast Conference Tournament champs for the first time since 2018.
  • Or was it coach Lisa Fortier, squatting near midcourt, watching her players mob one another for a second time – post-replay review – and then bowing her head in … what? Gratitude? Exhaustion?

“Happiness,” she conceded, “was the overwhelming emotion.”

It was all good stuff, in any case, and the 43-42 fistfight the Zags won from their favorite sparring partner Brigham Young might be the women’s finest hour at the WCC’s annual smoker, at least given the panic of the previous 24 hours and their recent Vegas history. But that’s a big-picture conclusion, and that’s not necessarily the place to start.

“When it comes down to games like this,” BYU coach Jeff Judkins said, “it comes down to little things.”

So here’s one of them: the jarring pick Jenn Wirth set on BYU’s Lauren Gustin to get Townsend open for the inbounds pass. Townsend still had to get the shot off her fingertips and over those of BYU’s 6-foot-7 Sara Hamson – remarkable even to the shooter herself who admitted, “I couldn’t see the hoop.”

But no space, no shot.

Oh, and this was good, too:

“Now that I look at the stat sheet,” Fortier said, getting up from the dais after the postgame interview session, “I could have said way smarter things.”

Stats schmatz, coach.

They point out the obvious, and analytics can unearth the subtleties – if they can be deciphered. But more attention will be paid to all those decimal points when they can quantify will.

Now, without proper context, this could be seen as a bit of fluffing up. The Zags were the WCC’s regular-season champions for a fifth straight year, after all, and a lock for the NCAA Tournament regardless of Tuesday’s outcome.

But the Vegas vibe has been strained. Two years ago, major injuries to Townsend and Laura Stockton – and the death of Fortier’s brother after she’d rushed to the hospital in the middle of the championship game – made for a devastating trip. Last year was supposed to be, as Townsend put it, “the redemption tour” – until the Bulldogs were stunned by Portland in the semifinals.

Then when some of the Bulldogs – starters Townsend, Cierra Walker and LeeAnne Wirth most notably – came down with gastroenteritis on Monday night, “This was classic Vegas for the Zags,” Townsend said.

LeeAnne Wirth didn’t make it to the bench, and Townsend and Walker sat for the opening tip. When they did play, it was mostly for leadership and moral support; until Townsend’s winner, neither had scored.

This tested Fortier’s faith on two levels.

She had to invest more trust in her bench, even when the Zags shot miserably and fell behind by 13 points early in the third quarter. Ejim raising her game to all-tournament heights cemented that trust.

“Not a lot of teams can start three people who don’t normally start,” Fortier said, “and have a freshman be the leading scorer who’d played maybe two minutes the game prior and still win a championship. I love our depth.”

Then she had to trust her most trustworthy player – oh-fer or no oh-fer. And Fortier did.

“Because she’s Jill,” she said.

Good answer.

“At the beginning of the year, we do a lot of team building,” Fortier explained. “At our retreat, we played this game – it’s something about your comfort zone, your growth zone and I don’t know what the last one is.”

“Uncomfortable,” Townsend said.

“Right,” the coach went on. “We ask a bunch of questions, a lot of silly ones – who’s afraid of spiders, who’s afraid of heights? Then we ask more serious questions, and one of the ones we asked was, ‘Who wants to take the last shot in a game?’

“And I’m pretty sure Towny was the only person in that circle … she’s that kind of person and that kind of player. I don’t think she feels stress – she feels stress, but she’s great in those scenarios.”

When games of skill become games of will. Here’s another one for that scrapbook.

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