In a season that posed more questions than usual, the Gonzaga women found a way to answer them, usually with an exclamation mark.
A few months after the COVID-19 pandemic ended the 2019-20 season, it offered more challenges to the new season.
The biggest: Would it even happen?
But by the time it ended, the Zags had come full circle, not only winning another West Coast Conference regular-season title but the tournament as well.
Years from now, players and coaches will remember the 23-3 record and Monday’s first-round NCAA game against Belmont, but also how they got there.
Here are seven defining moments in an iconic season.
A FanFest with no fans
One month later than usual and with fewer than 100 people in the Kennel, the Zags held their annual FanFest on Nov. 10.
The fans were home and so were two players, sidelined by COVID-19.
And yet, the program finally got a sense of normalcy, with players shooting, driving, defending with outsiders watching – sort of.
“I thought they did some good things, and it was fun to watch these guys compete with a different feeling, because we haven’t had any live scrimmages like this,” coach Lisa Fortier said.
In other words, Fortier’s message was that the season would be defined by “what we can control.”
It would become a mantra for the season.
In another moment of normalcy, the Zags were picked to repeat at WCC champions, although BYU and Portland were expected to offer a challenge.
“We have a lot of weapons,” Fortier said.
A schedule carved from wet cement
Fortier wasn’t in a great mood when the subject of GU’s nonconference schedule was broached during a virtual news conference in mid-November
Fortier tossed her mask to the side of the table, leaned into the microphone and said, “Let me tell you everything we know for sure about the nonconference schedule.”
Needing only 10 seconds of silence to make her point, Fortier went on to say “one day we will be able to share all of that information.”
Fortier didn’t mind sharing some of the frustrations of coaching during a pandemic, from delayed practices to worries about depth and hygiene protocols.
But through it all, there’s basketball to be played, or at least practiced.
“I think we’re more appreciative,” said Fortier, who held a team retreat the previous weekend.
“There’s a feeling of gratitude, of the opportunity to play with your teammates.”
A big game with the Gamecocks
With the schedule finalized, the Zags were all set to open the season with a Thanksgiving tournament in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
The opening game against Oklahoma promised to be a good test – until the Sooners canceled because of a COVID-19 outbreak.
That meant beginning the season against a top-ranked South Carolina squad with two games under its belt.
But at that point the Zags would take anything, and they responded by pushing the Gamecocks to the limit before losing 79-72.
“We’re tough and we’re not afraid of any opponent,” Fortier said.
They showed more grit a day later, coming from behind to beat South Dakota before losing in overtime at South Dakota State.
The new normal at the Kennel
Late in the home opener on Dec. 13, the visiting Montana Grizzlies had cut a 14-point Zags lead down to two.
That would have been the cue for a sellout crowd to get on its feet and push the Zags to the finish line.
You can get only so much energy out of cardboard cutouts, even 300 of them – so much for home-court advantage.
So the Zags made their own, regaining their composure and shooting touch to hold off the Lady Griz 58-51.
Fortier’s cup was half full, however.
“We’re going to keep getting better,” Fortier said. “We don’t want to be our best right now.”
Montana, picked to finish sixth in the Big Sky Conference, didn’t figure to pose a major challenge. The Lady Griz, however, managed to disrupt GU’s offensive flow for most of the afternoon.
The Zags made up for it on the defensive end, holding Montana to 39% shooting and 17% from long range.
That set the tone for the rest of the season, GU’s conference rivals would learn.
Grounding the Pilots
As first-place showdowns go, this one didn’t live up to expectations.
Then again, the Gonzaga women couldn’t have been more thrilled with their resounding 75-43 win over Portland on Jan. 9 in the Kennel.
In one utterly dominating performance, the Zags seized sole possession of first place in the WCC and left the rest of the conference wondering how to compete on the glass.
They also buried a painful postseason loss to the Pilots the previous year.
The 21st-ranked Zags, laser-focused all afternoon, heeded the advice and never let up. That was important, because they blew an early 20-0 lead in the tournament loss to the Pilots.
No one needed reminding.
“That motivation is always in the back of your head,” said senior forward Jenn Wirth, who channeled that energy into her fourth double-double in the past five games: 21 points and 10 rebounds.
“It was our most complete game of the season,” Fortier said of GU’s 22nd consecutive home win.
A big win over BYU
Not that they welcomed it, but a little adversity this week wasn’t the worst thing for the Gonzaga women.
After more than a month of cruising through conference competition, the Zags passed their biggest test of the season, holding off BYU 63-56 and taking a two-game lead in the WCC.
More important, they did so with grit.
Absent the customary sellout crowd, the 19th-ranked Zags had to lift themselves up after BYU crept closer and finally tied the game with less than 2 minutes to play.
That BYU did so after a technical foul on GU senior guard Cierra Walker applied more pressure on a team that has seen little since November.
But it was Walker who pulled herself and the Zags back from the brink with a pair of 3-pointers from the left corner. “So clutch,” teammate Jill Townsend said.
A shot for the ages
It really was the ultimate gut check.
Sick to her stomach and her team trailing by a point in a WCC Tournament championship game with less than a second to play, Townsend had the ball in her hands.
She had no time to think – about past disappointments in Las Vegas or the fact that she hadn’t scored a point all afternoon.
Townsend simply let it fly. With six-tenths of a second left, she didn’t have any choice.
The ball was still in the air as the buzzer sounded, but it found the bottom of the net to give the Gonzaga women a 43-42 win over BYU in the tournament title game at the Orleans Arena.
Then Townsend ran down the court – no small feat for someone who could barely get out of bed Tuesday morning because of a bad case of food poisoning.
“It’s something I will remember the rest of my life,” Townsend said.
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