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

‘She has all the tools’: Yvonne Ejim continues to raise her game for 23rd-ranked Gonzaga

Gonzaga forward Yvonne Ejim is averaging 17 points, 7.6 rebounds, 0.9 blocks and 1.8 steals per game, all team highs for the 23rd-ranked Bulldogs.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Jim Allen For The Spokesman-Review

For fans of Gonzaga women’s basketball, it’s a reassuring feeling when Yvonne Ejim gets the ball at the high post.

More often than not, contested or not, Ejim finds her way to the bucket and scores.

This is a team game, but Ejim is the biggest reason GU is 9-2 and ranked 23rd in the nation. She’s put up big numbers all season and risen to the occasion when the Zags need her most.

“She has all the tools,” coach Lisa Fortier said last week after Ejim scored a career-high 32 points to help a shorthanded GU team roll past Queens University of Charlotte (North Carolina).

“It’s always nice that when you throw someone the ball and you know that something good is probably going to happen,” Fortier said.

Ejim is the complete package, but that quality goes far beyond the basketball court. She loves calculus, aspires to be doctor and has found her voice as a spokesperson for social justice.

“She’s built herself into the leader she is,” Fortier said of the 6-foot-1 junior.

In some ways, that process began at home in Calgary, Alberta, where Ejim was forced to mature when her older brothers moved on. Helping her mother at home with her three younger siblings, she also found time to excel in the classroom and in sports.

That included competing in volleyball and track through high school. But basketball was always the front-runner, especially after Ejim was invited to a Team Canada camp as an eighth-grader.

Playing basketball since age 7, she was the youngest invitee by at least a year. The exposure to top-flight competition stoked the flame higher.

Committing to basketball was easy; not so making a decision on where to play college ball. Ejim had plenty of choices, including Iowa State, where an older brother had played.

Ejim took visits to ISU and other schools. Meanwhile, Fortier and her family were on vacation in Mexico as Ejim was making her decision.

“It would have ruined the vacation if she’d gone elsewhere,” Fortier said. “We were pretty excited to get her.”

The feeling was mutual.

“I knew this was the place I was going to get the best four years out of my life,” Ejim said. “The academics are a bonus, but the family atmosphere and the competitiveness I felt from the university and team, was something I really wanted.”

After graduation and a possible pro basketball career, Ejim also wants to pursue a career in medicine.

“This is the perfect place for that,” she said.

Like any other talented freshman, Ejim wanted some serious playing time. But at GU, the forwards and post players in Fortier’s program tend to work their way up the ladder.

So it was for Ejim, who got double-digit minutes only three times during her freshman year of 2020-21.

Her breakthrough moment came in March 2021 at the West Coast Conference Tournament. The night before the title game against BYU, several teammates got food poisoning.

Thrust into the limelight, Ejim shined.

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 that led to Jill Townsend’s buzzer-beating shot.

“She’s going to be a great player for us, and today she was a great player,” Fortier said after the game.

Ejim’s game grew during her sophomore year and so did her stature. She averaged 10 points and 5.6 rebounds to earn the WCC’s Sixth Woman of the Year award, then played with Team Canada during the summer.

At the same time, Ejim found her voice off the court in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests around the nation.

Last season, Ejim and her teammates made their voices heard with a pregame video that called for social and racial justice.

Several players, including Ejim, kneeled during the playing of the national anthem. Some fans jeered, others cheered, but the point was made.

Ejim worries that people will move on to the next thing.

“The movement was always there,” Ejim said of the fight for racial equality. “With George Floyd, it escalated more, but it’s a thing that never really stopped.

“But it’s hard for people to continue this movement when people forget to make it a priority.”

Ejim and her teammates haven’t forgotten, and she spoke this week of plans to make some sort of visual statement this year.

In the meantime, Ejim’s priority is basketball, and she’s been on the court almost continually. After playing with Team Canada, she returned to Spokane with higher expectations for herself.

A sure-fire starter after GU lost four to graduation, Ejim has become the focal point of the offense, especially after the lineup was decimated by illness and injury.

Even before that, Ejim rescued the Zags by scoring the winning bucket in a come-from-behind win at Wyoming.

The following weekend in the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, she averaged 14 points and almost eight boards against Louisville, Marquette and Tennessee.

In the third-place game against Tennessee, the Zags called on Ejim down the stretch and she delivered: 22 points and the winning layin to propel GU back into the Top 25 for the first time in 18 months.

“She’s amazing to play with,” teammate Eliza Hollingsworth said. “She’s so physical, big, also so fast – one of the best players in the nation, I think. She’s really good and she’s not selfish.”

That quality has been tested of late, as the Zags have played with as few as seven players due to illness and injury.

Since the Battle 4 Atlantis, Ejim has averaged more than 30 minutes on the court, with predictably big numbers on the stat sheet.

Against Queens last week, Ejim was almost unstoppable when she got the ball at the high post. Other teams are paying attention, and she was held to 10 points on Sunday by UC Davis.

But GU got the win.

“I think that the great part for Vonnie is we have plays,” Fortier said. “We work hard with her on how to find teammates, to post up deeper. She knew this going into the season.”

Whatever the rest of the season holds, fans will be reassured when Ejim has the ball in her hands.