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Sports >  Gonzaga women

Vince Grippi: Gonzaga’s WCC semifinal win over BYU is a fitting end to a soon-departed rivalry

March 6, 2023 Updated Mon., March 6, 2023 at 8:15 p.m.

By Vince Grippi The Spokesman-Review

LAS VEGAS – An end. And maybe a beginning.

The final appearance of the BYU women in a West Coast Conference basketball game. And, quite possibly, the start of Gonzaga’s trek to another tournament title.

The latter is still to be decided Tuesday, when the 28-3 Bulldogs face second-seeded Portland (22-8) in the championship game.

The former? An out-of-halftime 9-0 run pretty much made it a given, as the Zags coasted past the Cougars 79-64 in Monday’s WCC Tournament semifinals at the Orleans Arena.

It may have been expected, especially after Gonzaga’s 15-1 conference regular season that seemed like, at times, outtakes from The Last of Us. Injuries and illness may have added up but losses didn’t, earning the Zags the WCC’s top seed again.

But guaranteed? Of course not. Especially not against BYU, the Zags’ No. 1 rival the past dozen seasons. Then again, it feels appropriate the program’s last game as a WCC member came against the Bulldogs.

“It kinda does,” agreed Gonzaga coach Lisa Fortier, who improved her career record against the Cougars to 13-9.

This has been a rivalry. A good one. In some ways pretty even but overall, one the Zags have gotten the better of.

“We just want to beat ‘em every time we play them,” Fortier admitted, adding that it was BYU’s last WCC game didn’t add anything more. There’s no need.

The two programs have grabbed a majority of the WCC Tournament titles since BYU entered in 2012. The Cougars have three, the Zags seven. They have met in five finals, including the past two years.

Regular-season titles have been more lopsided, with Gonzaga winning 10 of the 12. The Cougars won the other two, including last year, and finished second six times.

“Sports aren’t sports without big rivalries,” said Fortier, trying to sell, at 41, she’s grown old with the rivalry. “They’ve been a great rival for us. I’ve not enjoyed every minute of it but I appreciate being a part of something like that.”

As she appreciated being part of Monday’s second-half shellacking.

Gonzaga, whose last game was eight days ago in Provo, Utah started fast but from then on didn’t execute well on the offensive end before intermission. It took a late defensive stand – BYU didn’t score in last 3 minutes – for the Zags to take a 31-25 lead into the locker room.

Then came the knockout punch, a nine-point burst to start the third, another 10-zip run near the end and a 27-10 edge in the period.

“We really wanted to compete coming out of halftime,” explained Fortier.

Gonzaga coach Lisa Fortier watches her team during the first half of a WCC Tournament semifinal against BYU on Monday at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga coach Lisa Fortier watches her team during the first half of a WCC Tournament semifinal against BYU on Monday at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

They did. But that wasn’t all the coaching staff wanted to see.

The first half, Fortier said, wasn’t Gonzaga offensive basketball. Too many execution mistakes. That wasn’t the case in the third quarter.

“That start of the second half,” she said, “we executed everything how it was supposed to be executed. If we missed one of those shots, it would have been OK. But we didn’t miss.”

That a great offensive stretch was keyed by Yvonne Ejim – 12 of the post’s game-high 21 came in the third – and two open shots converted by Brynna Maxwell – the guard finished with 18, including 4-of-6 from beyond the arc – was also appropriate.

Both mainly rely on teammates screens and assists to get open looks. Of the 27 points in the third, all but six came off either assisted baskets or free throws.

Again, appropriate for the rivalry, as efficient offensive basketball was as hallmark of the BYU program under longtime coach Jeff Judkins, who retired after last season. It was his teams that built the rivalry.

“(There is) just a lot of respect between the two teams,” Fortier said, mentioning she consider Judkins one of her coaching friends and they still text, though “not as much after BYU games.”

Would you expect anything different?

Now it’s just not Judkins who will be gone. The entire rivalry is vanishing in the mist of conference realignment. It will be missed. By Fortier, at least. Even if she didn’t always enjoy the result.

“That’s not what rivalries are,” she said when asked if the games were enjoyable. “But you like to be on the up side of it. When you’re not, when you’re on the down side of it, it feels terrible.”

For this one last time, there were no worries about that.

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