Vince Grippi: Gonzaga women’s hopes of a high NCAA Tournament seed are all but gone with loss to Portland
March 7, 2023 Updated Tue., March 7, 2023 at 7 p.m.
LAS VEGAS – Where to now?
It’s a legitimate question in a lot of ways for the Gonzaga Bulldogs.
They fumbled away the West Coast Conference Tournament title to NCAA-bound Portland 64-60 at the Orleans Arena on Tuesday afternoon.
Their fourth defeat this season came in the most excruciating way possible: A 13-point second-half lead lost via two dozen turnovers – eight in the third quarter alone – and key mistakes down the stretch.
A defeat that submarines their hopes of a high NCAA seed. The Pilots, a group the Zags handled twice during their 17-1 WCC regular season, stole them away – literally – and earned their way to the NCAA promised land.
Instead of cutting nets and playing in the falling confetti, Lisa Fortier’s team sat in a somber and tearful locker room.
“I don’t know yet,” Fortier responded when asked the obligatory what’s-next question. “I’m not good at this day. That’s what I told the team. I never want to be good at this speech. And that I feel like crying alongside of you. It sucks.”
But there is more of March and its madness ahead. At least there better be.
“We are feeling this feeling right now,” said a disappointed Yvonne Eijim, who led both teams with 21 points and 14 rebounds. “That won’t last and we don’t want it to. (But) it gives us a little bit of momentum to want to play better than we did in this game.”
It will be a while before the next one, thanks to the WCC’s early tournament dates – Fortier termed the next 10 days or so the “awkward time” – and the lack of clarity inherent with Tuesday’s defeat.
For whatever the reason, Fortier’s Zags, who are 28-4, haven’t been loved much by the NCAA’s secretive – and powerful – tournament selection tool, the NET rankings. At least for much of the season.
After an outstanding early season showing in the Bahamas, their NET was in the top 10% of the 361 teams listed. But it’s dropped pretty steadily since. Heading into the title contest, despite having won all but one game since early December, the Bulldogs sat at 41. The Pilots were at 82, probably earning a drop of two or three spots for GU.
In the Bahamas, the Bulldogs grabbed wins over then-No. 4 Louisville and Tennessee, the latter with star point guard Kayleigh Truong’s major foot injury hanging over them. Sandwiched between was a four-point loss to Marquette.
How have those schools done since? We could share that Tennessee just played for the SEC Tournament title. Ditto for Louisville in the ACC. But instead, here are their NET numbers: Marquette 43, Louisville 20, Tennessee 15.
It showed the Zags can play with the best.
“I think we are every bit as good as anyone thought we were after we went to the Bahamas and won those games,” Fortier said. “And every bit as good as we were when we went, what, 17-1 (in WCC play).”
The Portland Pilots react after defeating the Gonzaga Bulldogs during the second half of a WCC tournament championship basketball game on Tuesday, March 7, 2023, at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Nev. The Portland Pilots won the game 63-60. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)Buy a print of this photo
OK, sure. The NET is a season-long ranking. And is it important. Why? Because, as GU fans have learned intimately over the years with the men, the NCAA values who you play. And the West Coast Conference only offers résumé-building courses at a few of its campuses.
Santa Clara isn’t one, but that’s where the shorthanded Zags suffered their worst defeat. Not by score – that came at Stanford – but by NET. The Broncos are at 135, a number that is borderline for your systolic but deadly for your NET. Though the way GU responded to each of its defeats – the first three were followed by winning streaks of three, 14 and seven games – should help mitigate it some.
“Every single night we were ready to play,” Fortier said, “and that was with a variety of people.”
Which brings up the elephant that should reside each day in the selection committee’s room: Injuries and illnesses decimated their roster for a while.
“This team is just now finding some rhythm in a season that was completely rhythm-less,” is how Fortier describes the impact.
Take the loss at Stanford in early December. Gonzaga suited seven healthy players. No Kayleigh Truong, of course. She just returned last week. But also no Eliza Hollingsworth nor Maud Hujibens, height sorely needed against, at the time, the nation’s second-ranked team. No Calli Stokes, who has become a key reserve. All but Stokes missed the Santa Clara loss as well.
“We’ve had players coming and going the entire time,” said Fortier whose team is as healthy now as it’s been since starting the tropical trip. “We’re finding rhythm – obviously, it didn’t work out for us today – but we’re getting better in all the areas still. I haven’t seen us defend the weakside and rebound in the ways we have the last three or four games.”
But will anyone mention the roster churn? Who speaks for Gonzaga in the room? The committee is supposed to represent all parts of the country, though this year that seems suspect.
Lisa Peterson, Oregon’s deputy athletic director, is the only rep from the West. There is someone from New Mexico, but that’s a long way from the Pacific.
It’s out of the Zags’ hands now. They lost control of the ball, the game and the future, to some degree in their final 20 minutes in Las Vegas. In a season of challenges, another looms.
“We want to have the right attitude, see what things we can fine tune and (then) we can have some fun in March,” Fortier said. “There is still a lot (ahead). This wasn’t one of our goals, to lose this game, but we have other goals, too. Those can be things we can refocus on once we get through the next day or two.”
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