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Gonzaga Women's Basketball

After dust settles around Sweet 16 loss, Gonzaga women can look back on special season

Gonzaga Bulldogs starters Yvonne Ejim, left, Eliza Hollingsworth, Kayleigh Truong, Brynna Maxwell and Kaylynne Truong are introduced before a game last season.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

There was much to celebrate for the Gonzaga women’s basketball team in the just-completed season.

The Zags had their best season under coach Lisa Fortier, who completed her 10th year as head coach.

Gonzaga finished 32-4 for its most victories. The winning percentage (.888) topped the previous best in 2010-11 (.861) under Kelly Graves.

The Zags cruised through the West Coast Conference at 16-0, winning by an average of 30.7 points per game.

They had what ESPN said was the fifth-toughest nonconference schedule in the nation. Their two regular-season losses came in that stretch – first a 77-72 overtime setback at Washington State in early November and a 81-70 defeat to Louisville at a tournament over Thanksgiving in Katy, Texas.

Highlighting a 24-game winning streak was a 96-78 upset of then-No. 3-ranked Stanford on Dec. 10. Gonzaga also had wins over California and Arizona, finishing 3-1 against Pac-12 schools.

The winning streak was snapped in the WCC Tournament championship game, a 67-66 decision to Portland.

That loss seemed to refocus the Zags, though. Their body of work earned them a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament and the right to host first- and second-round games.

Gonzaga overcame a slow start in its NCAA opener to turn back UC Irvine going away. That set up a matchup against fifth-seeded Utah. Before a sellout boisterous crowd at McCarthey Athletic Center, the Zags topped the Utes 77-66 to advance to the Sweet 16 in Portland.

Considering what was riding on the game against Utah, Fortier called it her team’s best performance of the season.

The Zags were hopeful they could earn the school’s second berth to the Elite Eight. But top-seeded Texas turned back Gonzaga 67-49.

“It wasn’t an indicator of the season that we had,” Fortier said after the season-ending loss.

Moments later, Fortier put coaching the team and the season in perspective.

“Coaching this team has been one of the most fun things I’ve done in my life, actually, especially the last couple of weeks,” she said. “They’ve just been such a joy.”

Gonzaga’s Yvonne Ejim, right, hugs Maud Huijbens after the Zags beat Utah to advance to the Sweet 16.  (COLIN MULVANY)
Gonzaga’s Yvonne Ejim, right, hugs Maud Huijbens after the Zags beat Utah to advance to the Sweet 16. (COLIN MULVANY)

Fortier was emotional after the loss. Not about the loss but about a special season with one of the most committed groups of players she’s had.

Four of her players will forever have a special spot in Fortier’s heart. Graduates Brynna Maxwell, Eliza Hollingworth and the Truong twins, Kaylynne and Kayleigh, could have left after the 2022-23 season. But they committed to having a year like this season – a year unlike any they had before.

Six Zags earned WCC honors. Leading the way was senior forward Yvonne Ejim, who was named the conference player of the year and the defensive player of the year.

The twins, both guards, and Maxwell, a wing, were WCC first-team selections, Hollingsworth, a forward, was a second-team pick and junior forward Maud Huijbens was named sixth woman of the year.

To no surprise, Fortier was named coach of the year.

The postseason honors started trickling in Wednesday with a couple of noteworthy awards. Ejim was named the 2024 Becky Hammon Player of the Year and Fortier was named Kathy Delaney-Smith Coach of the Year by Her Hoop Stats, which honors the top player and coach from a midmajor.

Ejim, a Calgary, Alberta, native, announced in late February she will return to Gonzaga for a fifth season, her COVID year. Seniors across the nation are the last class that can take advantage of having an extra season because of the pandemic.

All five starters averaged in double-figure scoring. Ejim led with 19.7 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. Maxwell scored 14.2 and had 2.9 rebounds while shooting a team-leading 44% from 3-point range and 86.9% from the free-throw line. Kayleigh Truong averaged 12.1 points and 4.4 assists; Kaylynne Truong averaged 11.4 points and a team-leading 5.7 assists; and Hollingsworth added 10.3 points and 7.1 rebounds.

Huijbens averaged 6.3 points and 3.6 rebounds in 19.6 minutes per game.

The Zags began the season with one of the deepest teams in school history. By season’s end, they were down to eight suited players. Along the way they lost Bree Salenbien (knee), Calli Stokes (concussion), Destiny Burton (knee) and Naya Ojukwu (personal reasons).

The bottom line? It’s a season the Zags and their fans won’t soon forget.