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Sports >  NCAA basketball

Gonzaga women happy with how season ended but questions remain about roster

UPDATED: Wed., March 30, 2022

For Gonzaga women’s basketball coach Lisa Fortier, the offseason lasted about 30 minutes.

The Zags had just lost to Louisville in the second round of the NCAA Tournament when the first emails arrived from would-be future Zags.

“Now there’s this thing called the transfer portal,” Fortier said.

More messages have arrived since then, forcing Fortier and her staff to peruse the candidates and stock up for next year.

That doesn’t leave much time to reflect on the season that just ended, but the question remains: How good was it?

If your cup is half-empty, you could point out that this is only the second time in 18 years that GU failed to bring home the West Coast Conference regular-season title.

Then again, the Zags went 15-2 – good enough for first place most seasons – won 27 games overall, took the conference tournament and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Not bad for a rebuilding year, though the Zags would never call it that.

The Zags succeeded despite replacing three top-tier starters and shifting to more ball-screen offense this year.

“I would say I was pretty happy with the outcome at the end of the year,” said Fortier, who will travel with her family this week for the Final Four and other year-end events.

“They just kept getting better toward the end,” Fortier said. “I think that the way our team came together was very nice. You have to grow as the season goes, and get better as individuals, and they did.”

Along the way, the Zags overcame an injury to starting point guard Kayleigh Truong, several heartbreaking losses, smaller crowds at the Kennel because of the pandemic and controversy over the decision by some players to take a knee during the singing of the national anthem.

Lowlights included losing double-digit leads and games against Stanford, Washington State, UC Davis and BYU. The Zags also crashed at BYU late in the season.

They got some revenge against the Cougars in the WCC Tournament. A week later, they earned a No. 9 seed in the NCAAs and knocked off Nebraska in the first round.

Looking ahead, the Zags must replace four starters in Melody Kempton, Anamaria Virjoghe, Cierra Walker and Abby O’Connor.

The challenge isn’t as daunting as it first appears, however, because Kaylynne Truong and Yvonne Ejim played starter minutes anyway and will move seamlessly into the lineup.

“That part is a bonus,” Fortier said. “I have a lot more confidence that we have three very veteran players.”

In the frontcourt, backups Eliza Hollingsworth and Maud Huijbens appear to have the best chance of seeing significant time, or even starting.

Both are 6-foot-3, but the similarity stops there. Hollingsworth, who will be a redshirt junior, is a strong outside shooter but looked uncomfortable at times in the paint. Huijbens is a strong force inside but struggled at times in passing the ball. Another freshman, Esther Little, saw limited playing time last year.

In the backcourt, redshirts Calli Stokes and Payton Muma will get a chance to make an impact.

The biggest uncertainty revolves around two of GU’s biggest recruits.

Guard McKayla Williams, a four-star signee two years ago out of Los Angeles, got double-digit minutes last season and impressed Fortier with her defense.

“She has the potential to be a great defender and rebounder, but she needs to get her offense up to speed,” Fortier.

Bree Salenbien, the program’s first five-star recruit, struggled at times with consistency.

“With more playing time, she would have gained more confidence,” Fortier said. On the other hand, other players also needed more minutes.

A day before the WCC Tournament, Salenbien tore the ACL in her left knee. She is still awaiting surgery, which means she may not be at full strength this fall.

The Zags are expected to use the transfer portal, at least for depth, at shooting guard and forward.

“I would certainly take a shooter, and I would take the right position player,” Fortier said.

Meanwhile, the Truong sisters have at last one more year left.

“I’m hoping they will stay for two, but I’m always in the market for a good ball handler,” Fortier said.

The transfer portal already has hundreds of players, including at least 20 from the WCC. As of Wednesday, Santa Clara has lost six players and Pepperdine five.

Gonzaga’s biggest rivals are unscathed so far.

BYU lost three starters and four players overall, but those were because of graduation. For their final year in the WCC, the Cougars will return conference MVP Shaylee Gonzales and one of the top rebounders in the country in Lauren Gustin.

Portland returns four starters in Alex Fowler, Haylee Andrews, Lucy Cochrane and Maisie Burnham (Liberty High).

USF also figures to contend, thanks to the return of All-WCC guard Ioanna Krimili, Kennedy Dickie and Jasmine Gaule.

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