Saturday’s FanFest event at the McCarthey Athletic Center felt less like a basketball game and more like a family reunion.
As the Gonzaga women warmed up for almost an hour, fans filed into the Kennel. Some were barely in their seats when they spotted an old friend. Some waved; others walked over and offered a hug.
It’s been a long time, after all.
Not since February 2020 have the Zags played a home game in front of more than a few dozen fans, and head coach Lisa Fortier made it a point to welcome them back.
“We missed you tremendously, when we were at home we noticed the difference you made,” Fortier told the thousand or so fans.
“A lot of teams last year got off the hook last year, not to get heckled by you,” said Fortier, who also recognozed the students and the pep band.
“Good to have you guys back … we miss you so much,” Fortier said.
FanFest also meant making some new acquaintances. Of the 14 players who suited up Saturday, only four – Melody Kempton, Ana Maria Virjoghe and Kayleigh and Kaylynne Truong – have experienced the pre-COVID Kennel atmosphere.
Someone in the athletic department thought to hand out paper rosters at the door – good thing, because there are many new faces.
“We’re really excited as coaches,” Fortier told the crowd of about a thousand folks who had passed up a gorgeous fall afternoon to get a peek inside the Kennel.
The players took it from there, first with a shooting skills contest won by sophomore Yvonne Ejim.
Next came the 3-point shooting contest, and the first surprise for many. The four-player field included veteran guards Cierra Walker and Kayleigh Truong, yet neither made it to the finals.
Instead, it was Bree Salenbien – GU’s first five-star recruit – who knocked off Walker. A few moments later, forward Eliza Hollingsworth outshot Truong.
Salenbien made nearly every shot in the final, the big takeaway being that GU has some bigs who can hit from outside – a big concern during the offseason.
The team split up for the scrimmage, with the Blue team beating the Red 30-25 mostly because it played better defense.
Three weeks into practice, that’s been the biggest concern for Fortier and her staff.
“Sometimes we just weren’t communicating out there on defense,” Fortier said.
The bigs on both sides took advantage. Senior post Anamaria Virjoghe was aggressive in driving for eight points; so were Ejim and Hollingsworth, who had six points each.
The Blues shot 14 for 22 from the field, offsetting a 5-for-7 night from the Reds’ Kaylynne Truong who was 5 for 7 and led all players with 12 points.
When it was over, no one was looking at the stat sheet, only at the crowd, which will be back in greater numbers for the Nov. 6 exhibition game against Central Washington.
The moment was especially poignant for Kempton, a senior from Post Falls.
Kempton thanked the crowd, then tried to appreciate the moment in a postgame interview.
“Not having my family, not having my friends here last year, that was really rough for me,” Kempton said. “I chose Gonzaga because I wanted to stay close to home – so just to see the crowd there, how happy they were, that was really special.”
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