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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Gonzaga women hope to rise to challenge of No. 7 Stanford

The box scores from the win over Idaho State had barely cleared the copy machine Thursday night when the Gonzaga players were asked about the next home game.

That would be defending national champion Stanford, which visits the Kennel on Sunday afternoon. It’s the biggest nonconference game in the Kennel since the last time the Cardinal made this trip, in 2018.

The Zags won that game 79-73 and figure to a have a decent shot of doing it again. GU is 3-0, with plenty of talent and depth to go along with a hunger to prove they deserve a spot in the national rankings.

“I can’t wait,” said Cierra Walker, who watched that game from the bench as a transfer.

“I think we’re all super excited,” senior Abby O’Connor said after the Zags’ 69-39 win over Idaho State.

The Zags have played their share of marquee nonconference games in recent years and have risen to the occasion every time.

Four years ago, they hung with defending national champ Notre Dame in a Thanksgiving tournament; a year later, it was the big win over Stanford; and in 2019, it was an overtime loss at then-No. 3 Stanford that catapulted the Zags into the Top 25.

The teams didn’t meet last year because of COVID-19; instead, GU opened with top-ranked South Carolina and lost by seven after leading late in the game.

But the Stanford rivalry is special. Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer, a Hall of Famer, has won three national titles and is a towering figure in the women’s game.

“This is the game we look forward to year after year,” Fortier said.

“We have a ton of respect for their program, and regardless of the outcome, there’s so much to be learned when you play a team of their caliber.”

On top of that, this will probably be the final homecoming for Lacie and Lexie Hull, who led Central Valley High School to a national championship in 2018.

“Lexie and Lacie has been one of the highlights of my coaching career,” VanDerveer said last week. “They are such warriors, not only inspiring young women, but so competitive and fantastic students and teammates.

“Spokane can be very proud of these young ladies.”

Meanwhile, Stanford isn’t necessarily feeling the pressure of being the defending national champions.

But the Cardinal are feeling some pressure of the full-court variety, and it’s already cost them.

Stanford returns 12 out of 13 players from last year, but appears to be missing graduated point guard Kiana Williams.

The Cardinal (2-1) come into Sunday’s game at Gonzaga with an elite lineup and a No. 7 ranking. But they were No. 3 until a week ago, when visiting Texas forced 20 turnovers and beat the Cardinal 61-56.

“I think the full-court defense, the pressure kind of got us out of whack,” VanDerveer said after the Texas game.

Three days later at Stanford, the Portland Pilots hung around until early in the fourth quarter before losing 77-55.

Fans can expect to see some sort of pressure from Gonzaga, which forced 12 Idaho State turnovers in the first half and has 32 steals through three games.

“Pressure in general is tough to go against,” Walker said.

VanDerveer said she wasn’t overly concerned.

“I’m not the worrying type,” VanDerveer said. “We’re in the beginning a new season and we’ve got great talent. … but some people are learning to play new positions.”

Through three games, Stanford is winning primarily with rebounding (averaging plus-10) and defense (opponents are shooting just 36%).

The Cardinal also have blocked 20 shots.

Stanford is shooting just 29% from long range and 64% from the foul line.