Arrow-right Camera
Subscribe now

College basketball 2023-24: GU women have ‘uncommon’ amount of returners. They’re ready to show their best is yet to come.

A college basketball coach has 200 combined minutes of playing time at her or his disposal every game.

Starters certainly earn a majority of the minutes. But when rosters suffer injury and illness, as the Gonzaga women’s basketball team did last year, a handful of players must play more minutes than is optimal.

Gonzaga coach Lisa Fortier faces something quite opposite of what she had last season. There are 12 players vying for playing time, and that’s assuming the incoming freshmen redshirt.

And the task of spreading those minutes around could have been made more difficult had McKayla Williams, a starter last year, not transferred.

The starting jobs will likely go to the four graduate returners – twins Kaylynne and Kayleigh Truong, and forwards Eliza Hollingsworth and Brynna Maxwell – along with senior and three-year starter Yvonne Ejim.

Ejim is glad it’s not her job to divvy up playing time.

When asked who she envisioned in the Zags’ rotation, she deferred to her coaches.

Ejim was one of the few players to avoid injuries or illness last year. She played in all 33 games, including big minutes in most .

She understands her role could change this season.

“I’m definitely going to be in the post; that’s non-negotiable,” Ejim said, laughing. “I don’t know what that means in minutes played. But it’s definitely nice to have everybody healthy and able to play.”

At the Zags’ FanFest, 13 players played 5 minutes or more in the 20-minute scrimmage and 11 played at least 11 minutes or more.

“It’s uncommon to have as many returners as we do,” Fortier said.

Maxwell said the spread of talent on the team is obvious in practices.

“No matter how it shakes out, it’ll set us up for success,” Maxwell said. “We’re an old team and I’ve never been part of an old team before.”

Another player, redshirt sophomore guard/forward Bree Salenbien, a four-star recruit out of Michigan, didn’t play at FanFest out of an abundance of caution because she suffered a minor injury in practice.

Salenbien is the most talented player Gonzaga has signed. She redshirted last year. Ejim sees Salenbien having a big role on the team.

“She can really shoot the ball,” Ejim said. “I can’t wait to play with her.”

Another player expected to make an impact is freshman post/forward Naya Ojukwu, a transfer from Utah by way of Meridian, Idaho.

“I have nothing but great things to say about Naya,” Ejim said. “In fact, that’s all you’ll hear about her is great things. She’s very physical in the post, has a great touch around the rim and is a great hustler.”

Maxwell believes there’s one player who isn’t new to the program that will likely become known quickly to fans. That’s redshirt sophomore guard Cali Stokes.

“Cali Stokes is probably going to be our sixth man,” Maxwell said. “She has a major motor that keeps going and going and going. Her shot has improved so much. She does all the little things and provides a spark.”

There’s a sour taste among the returners about how last season ended.

“When you’re a competitor there’s something deep down in the pit that wants to do better and succeed more,” Fortier said. “I think that they’ve taken that into this year a little bit. They look like they’re practicing with great intentionality and they’re open to what we’re trying to do and bought into the new things.

“We know we weren’t at our best (at the end). We ran into a tough matchup (against Ole Miss). We thought we were going to do better than we did and we did not. Ending last year with the two losses isn’t something we talk about often, but I know it has an undertone in some people’s minds.”

With BYU’s departure from the West Coast Conference and the loss of a potential three games against the Cougars, Gonzaga’s schedule took a competitive hit. Fortier beefed up the nonconference schedule to make up for the lack of quality conference games, but also with the hope of improving their seed line in the NCAA Tournament.

It’s the toughest nonconference schedule Gonzaga has had in the combined 19 years Fortier has spent with the Zags.

“We’re still trying to figure it out. We thought we had cracked the code in getting an at-large (berth), which we sort of have,” Fortier said. “Also, we’re trying to figure out how to break this thing where we can get ourselves a higher seed, because we’d like to host (first and second rounds). There are those that think you do it by winning, do it by playing tougher teams. We’ve won plenty. We’re going to challenge ourselves so by the time we get to March we have played against some of the country’s best, tougher, bigger conferences, so we’re better for whatever comes our way.”