For the Gonzaga women this season, it really was about the journey.
It began and ended in paradise – in November in the Bahamas, and last week with the exhilaration of winning another West Coast Conference title.
The journey isn’t over. Next week the Zags are off to Las Vegas for the WCC Tournament, and after that, the NCAAs.
“And hopefully for a deep run,” GU head coach Lisa Fortier said Wednesday before a practice that doubled as a celebration – of Gonzaga’s 27-3 record, the WCC title, coach of the year honors for Fortier and player of the year for point guard Kaylynne Truong.
As bright as the moment was, no one could forget the tunnel from which they’d just emerged. For almost three months, it was darkened by uncertainty and margins of error that shrank with every injury.
But as assistant coach Jordan Green said last week, the players “never let any of that stuff get them down, that the team on the floor was going to give everything they had.”
Highs and lows
As their plane departed the Bahamas on Nov. 22, the Zags celebrated one of the biggest weekends in program history.
Competing in the elite Battle 4 Atlantis, they’d knocked off national powers Louisville and Tennessee. But they’d lost something bigger: starting point guard Kayleigh Truong to a foot injury and Maud Huijbens to a concussion.
“It was the highest of highs and the lowest of lows,” assistant coach Stacy Clinesmith said.
As coaches and teammates speculated at the severity of Truong’s injury, her twin sister Kaylynne was in denial about her sister’s condition.
“When I got the news, it was upsetting,” she said. “I had waited four years to finally get to start and play with ‘Leigh,’ and for that to be taken away, it was tough.”
Things got tougher, and quickly. Injuries and illness forced cancellation of a Nov. 26 game against Eastern Washington.
On Dec. 1, they passed a major challenge by winning at midmajor power Stephen F. Austin despite the loss of another player, Eliza Hollingsworth, to illness.
Looking back, Fortier saw that game as a major test passed.
“That was a turning point in their belief,” Fortier said. “I think that before that, there was a little bit of ‘sorry for ourselves, woe is us.’
“It became, ‘How are we going to do this?’ ”
The Stephen F. Austin game was bittersweet. Intended as a homecoming of sorts for the Truongs, their family and friends would see only Kaylynne take the court.
“It was a great game, great energy,” assistant coach Craig Fortier said. “We really pulled it together, but I was thinking about what happens next.”
Two days later, Stokes joined Hollingsworth in sick bay, forcing the Zags to face second-ranked Stanford with seven players. Improbably, they hung with the Cardinal for almost three quarters.
All hands on deck
The tunnel was darkest in the second week of December. Conference play was about to begin – against rival BYU, no less – and the Zags were down to eight healthy players.
Finals were over, and the “practice guys,” – GU men with enough game to test the women – had gone home for the holidays.
Pressed into service, the assistant coaches took the floor, sans whistles.
“That wasn’t a problem for Stacy (a former WNBA player), and Jordan was a pretty crafty college player,” Craig Fortier said. “But I wound up in the trainer’s room.”
Game days were like nothing the coaches could remember.
Gone was Lisa Fortier’s choreographed rotation, where elite players like Jill Barta, Jill Townsend and the Wirth sisters averaged well below 30 minutes on the court.
Suddenly, 30-plus minutes were the norm for starters Truong, Yvonne Ejim, McKayla Williams, Brynna Maxwell and Hollingsworth. The margin for error grew even smaller when Ejim got into foul trouble, which seemed to happen every other game.
“And every day the pieces were changing,” Green said.
In January, the Zags added soccer player Giana Riley to the squad, but were still without Kayleigh Truong and Huijbens.
Truong’s right foot was healing, albeit slowly, while Huijbens suffered several setbacks and remained in concussion protocol far longer than expected.
Despite everything, the Zags kept winning – 14 in a row at one point.
“We have a lot of weapons,” Lisa Fortier said after one game.
The Zags were a tough out for anyone. Ejim is a premier forward with one of the best high post moves in the country. Maxwell is the top 3-point shooter in the land. Williams has spent the season locking down some of the best players in the WCC, all the while improving her offense. Hollingsworth complemented her outside shooting with better defense and work on the boards.
But Kaylynne Truong was the glue that held it together. Averaging 33 minutes a game, she became the most versatile guard in the conference, and ultimately, the WCC Player of the Year.
“I don’t think any of us were shocked at what she’s done and how she handled the situation,” Clinesmith said. “And I don’t think we would have the same type of season without Kaylynne Truong.”
Another blow fell on Jan. 26. Winners of 12 straight, the Zags were at home against last-place Loyola Marymount. Five minutes into the game, Hollingsworth crashed headfirst onto the Kennel floor.
Hobbling off the court with trainers on each arm, she didn’t return.
The Zags were also staggered. They barely got through that game and the next one, against lowly Pepperdine.
Five days later they lost at Santa Clara, dropping them into a first-place tie with Portland.
The Zags rose to the occasion. Truong had 20 points and five assists, and three other Zags were in double figures in a 63-53 win.
Two weeks later, with the title still in doubt, Huijbens and Hollingsworth rejoined the team for the final two home games.
This wasn’t a character-building exercise; the players already had plenty.
“The thing about this team,” Green said, “is that they never got too down but just rolled with the punches.
“They all just said, ‘I’m going to do what’s best for the team and we’ll just see how we do.’ ”