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Sports >  NCAA basketball

‘Our players are really excited:’ Gonzaga women’s basketball eager for Stanford showdown, and a semi-normal season

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 9, 2021

The pieces are finally coming together for what could be a reasonably normal women’s basketball season at Gonzaga.

“We are certainly hoping so,” GU coach Lisa Fortier said Thursday.

The Zags have a full roster, a full schedule and a season that’s full of high expectations after they went 23-4 last year.

These days, that’s as normal as it gets, especially with COVID-19 poised to affect a third straight season.

“The last two weeks have certainly made us wonder,” said Fortier, referring to the delta variant of the coronavirus.

What that means for fans at McCarthey Athletic Center this season is still unclear. At this point, they can count on wearing masks, but at least they will be in the building and actually watching live women’s basketball.

They will be watching some high-caliber games at the Kennel. Gonzaga’s nonconference schedule hasn’t been officially announced, but it can be pieced together from other schools’ athletic websites.

The can’t-miss game is Nov. 21, when defending NCAA champion Stanford visits the Kennel. The Cardinal had been scheduled to visit last year, but that game was axed by the pandemic.

“Our players are really excited about that,” said Fortier, whose teams have generally risen to the occasion against top-flight nonconference opponents.

Last year, the Zags opened the season against top-ranked South Carolina. Leading in the fourth quarter, they lost by seven points.

A year earlier, GU took Stanford to overtime on the road, and beat them in Spokane the year before.

“We’ve done really well in some of those games,” Fortier said.

Another high-profile game is the Dec. 8 home date against Washington State, which shocked the experts last year by reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history.

The full schedule will be released early next week, according to sports information director Barrett Henderson.

Other confirmed home games are Nov. 11 against Montana State and Dec. 3 against Wyoming.

The Zags will play in the three-game University of Hawaii Tournament in Honolulu on Thanksgiving weekend.

GU will open with Utah on Nov. 26. Also in the field are Hawaii and Eastern Illinois

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The Gonzaga women will open the West Coast Conference portion of their schedule at home against San Francisco on Dec. 30, the conference announced Wednesday.

The Bulldogs have won 16 of the past 17 regular-season WCC titles, including the 2020-21 title, along with eight of the past 13 tournament championships.

They probably won’t be favored to win this year.

With the graduation of Jill Townsend and Jenn and LeeAnne Wirth, the Zags lose 52% of their scoring and rebounding from last year – that despite none of them averaging more than 26 minutes on the court.

Meanwhile, rival BYU is returning all of its key players, several of whom opted to take advantage of the sixth year of eligibility offered by the NCAA during the pandemic. BYU finished second last year and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

“I think we probably won’t be favored, but I don’t really care,” Fortier said.

The rebuilding project isn’t as daunting as it appears, thanks to a solid group of veterans in the backcourt and Fortier’s practice of giving heavy minutes to her top reserves.

Invoking last year’s mantra – “controlling what we can control” – Fortier and her staff are focusing on finding the best combinations on the court when practice begins on Sept. 30.

The biggest questions come in the frontcourt.

“We’ll just have to see,” Fortier said. “Two of our three best players last year were post players. … We’ll have to see how productive (their successors) can be.”

Post Falls product Melody Kempton (6.6 points per game and 3.6 rebounds) goes into her senior year as the favorite to start at one forward spot.

Yvonne Ejim is coming off a solid freshman year highlighted by a 13-point, nine-rebound effort in the WCC title game and also will compete.

Also in the mix are 6-foot-5 Anamaria Virjoghe and 6-2 Eliza Hollingsworth, who showed flashes late in the season after losing her freshman year to injury.

The returnees up front lacks a strong outside shot, a weapon the Wirths used to keep opposing teams off-balance.

Things are more solid in the backcourt, where grad transfer Cierra Walker (6.7 ppg, 41% from 3) is back and twins Kayleigh (8.1 ppg, 4.5 assists per game) and Kaylynne Truong (4.2 ppg) go into their junior year.

Also back are Makayla Williams and Kylee Griffen, though the latter has missed two straight seasons with injury.

Perhaps the most intriguing position is at wing, where Townsend started the past two years. Abby O’Connor got double-digit minutes there last year, but could be challenged incoming freshman Bree Salenbien.

The 6-3 Salenbien, the first five-star recruit in program history, has strong ball-handling skills and is expected to play guard or wing.

The Zags have four other newcomers.

At guard, there’s Payton Muma, a 5-8 guard from Highlands Ranch, Colorado, and Calli Stokes, a 6-foot guard-forward from Redondo Beach, California. Both will look for playing time.

In the frontcourt, there’s Maud Huijbens, a 6-5 transfer forward from Syracuse; and Esther Little, a 6-2 guard-forward from England with more than 50 games’ worth of international experience.

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