Whether it’s the next game or the next season, the future looks a lot brighter for the Gonzaga women.
In the short term, the Zags go into Monday’s NCAA Tournament opener against Belmont feeling good about their depth.
And fans who fret about the rebuilding job ahead next fall, well, they can relax a little easier now.
Last week’s win over BYU in the West Coast Conference title game will go down in GU lore – mostly for Jill Townsend’s buzzer-beater.
That was enough to make the highlight reels around the country, including the intro to Monday’s tournament selection show.
But in the long run, the bigger story might be the sudden revelation that things will be just fine next year despite the graduation of Townsend and the Wirth sisters, Jenn and LeeAnne.
That revelation occurred in the fourth quarter of the BYU game. With LeeAnne Wirth and several others players sidelined by stomach flu, the Zags got a superb fourth quarter from freshman forward Yvonne Ejim and solid performances from sophomores Eliza Hollingsworth and Kaylynne Truong.
Hollingsworth missed her entire freshman season and part of this one with a severe bone bruise, caused by what she calls the “most lame thing – not watching where I was going” and stepping into a pothole near the GU campus.
“It was difficult to stay on the sidelines last year and watch, but this makes it more emotional,” Hollingsworth said Wednesday from San Marcos, Texas.
Things got worse as the COVID-19 pandemic and visa problems delayed Hollingsworth’s return from her native Australia.
Almost two years after her last game, Hollingsworth finally got on the court on Jan. 14 at Santa Clara.
Playing time was sparse, and so were the highlights until she got eight points against Pepperdine in the final homestand of the season.
Then came the WCC Tournament. Hollingsworth didn’t see action in the semifinals against Santa Clara, but she also didn’t get sick like half a dozen players.
Late in the fourth quarter against BYU, coach Lisa Fortier drew up several plays for Hollingsworth, including a 3-pointer at the top of the arc.
With 3½ minutes left and the Zags down by seven, Hollingsworth found herself on that spot, telling herself, “Regardless, I have to put that ball up.”
Hollingsworth did so and made a shot that kept the comeback alive.
That it mattered at all was due to an even bigger breakthrough from Ejim, who is suddenly the fan favorite to start when the Zags tip off the 2021-22 season.
The freshman from Calgary, Alberta, had shown potential that came in spurts – six points and seven rebounds in just eight minutes at Wyoming, and similar stats against North Alabama.
“From the beginning of the year, it was just about getting down to the basics,” said Ejim, who played on the Canadian U19 national team but needed to make some adjustments to the American college game.
“Sometimes, it was difficult with getting comfortable in the post,” said Ejim, who is 6-foot-1.
“I had to work on being strong and asserting myself.”
Then came the stretch drive of the season, and Ejim responded by going 8 for 8 in the last three games, including the WCC semifinals.
That night, the stomach flu claimed LeeAnne Wirth and post Anamaria Virjoghe and gave Ejim her first big opportunity.
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.
At game’s end, Ejim was in the celebratory mob surrounding Townsend.
“That was most of my emotions,” Ejim said. “I was glad to be able to contribute.”
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