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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Women’s basketball: As AP voters ignore Gonzaga, No. 19 Zags return the favor while focusing on bigger picture

Brynna Maxwell wouldn’t care if her Gonzaga women’s basketball team dropped out of the Associated Press Top 25 rankings.

To the 19th-ranked Zags, the poll is a joke.

They’ve watched as they’ve dominated West Coast Conference teams and dropped three spots in two of the past four weeks. In the rankings released Monday, the Zags held steady at 19th.

The AP rankings will have no impact on seeding to the NCAA Tournament. The NET rankings and strength of schedule are more important.

Following the 104-39 win over Pacific on Saturday, the Zags rose four spots to No. 10 in the NET. Their nonconference schedule was considered the fifth-most difficult in the nation.

Zags coach Lisa Fortier and her team still notice the AP rankings.

“Can you start voting?” Fortier asked the assembled media following Saturday’s game. “Find a way. Can’t you guys pool together to at least get us one vote in the right direction?”

Fortier knows why her team has slipped in the rankings.

“I think it’s just crazy that right now that they do the voting based on the competition that you’re playing,” Fortier said. “Nobody is talking about the competition you’re playing in November when you’re beating tough teams and other teams are playing garbage teams or low RPI teams or low NET teams.

“Comparatively, the opponents aren’t the (same) caliber. That’s the one thing that’s frustrating to me.”

Fortier shares a simple message with her team daily.

“I’m making sure my team knows we’re focused on (getting) 1% better every day,” Fortier said. “The quality of our opponent is not in our control once you get to conference. We schedule quality opponents in the nonconference. Even though it’s irritating that we keep dropping, that’s not our mission. Our mission is to be the best version of us that we can be, and our mission is to continue to improve every day until we get to the end and finish this thing out just being better on the last day than we were the day before.”

The nonconference schedule has served its purpose, evidenced by the Zags (22-2, 9-0), who have the most wins of any team in the nation, earning a No. 10 ranking in the NET.

In Charlie Creme’s ESPN bracketolody released Tuesday, Gonzaga continues to be a first- and second-round host as a No. 4 seed.

“There’s no requirement for voters to watch,” Fortier said. “I don’t know how many of them are in the Northwest, I don’t know how many have seen us live. I’m not trying to rile them up (her team) or mind game them anymore I would have as a younger coach. I tell them the truth. I told them the truth, I didn’t think we were going to do that (dominate Pacific). They understand what that means.”

Fortier doesn’t agree with the Zags’ spot in the AP rankings.

“I’m going to tell you the truth – I think we should be ranked higher, but we’re not,” she said. “But I’m also going to tell you the truth that I don’t really care. So let’s practice today. That’s what they’re usually going to get from me.”

Her Zags have kept it in perspective.

“Honestly, we don’t really care about AP,” Maxwell said. “It’s just for media and fans and it doesn’t really matter for postseason. If they keep dropping us they can take us out of the Top 25, I really don’t care. Our NET keeps going up and that’s what matters. We keep building our resume and that’s the important thing.”

The Zags get their first look at Pepperdine (5-17, 1-8), which is tied with San Diego for last place in the WCC. Tip is at 6.

Loyola Marymount visits on Saturday.

Another week, another Zag steps up

In recent weeks, Gonzaga reserve forward Maud Huijbens has been stating a case for the WCC Sixth Woman of the Year.

In the Zags’ blowout win over Pacific, redshirt sophomore Bree Salenbien, who returned from injury just before the first of the year, matched her career high with 14 points.

“It’s good to get some confidence going,” Salenbien said. “Shots were falling so it was fun. Hopefully, I can just stay consistent now.”

Zag to help New Zealand team

Newly added Gonzaga freshman Lauren Whittaker has been named to New Zealand’s Senior Women’s National Team to help qualify Team New Zealand for this summer’s Paris Olympics.

She has joined the team in China to play three games Thursday through Sunday at the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament.

Whittaker is a 6-foot-3 forward.

Fortier had this to say when Whittaker signed with Gonzaga in November: “Lauren is going to be a huge asset to our team. … There are not many players out there who move so fluid at her height.”

EWU slips a game back

Eastern Washington fell a game behind Big Sky leader Northern Arizona, falling to Montana State in the first of four straight home games last Thursday.

It was EWU’s second straight loss after losing at Northern Arizona.

The Eagles salvaged a split with the Montana schools on Saturday defeating the Grizzlies.

“Montana State is really good; it’s not like we lost to a bad team,” Eagles coach Joddie Gleason said. “They’re definitely long and athletic. We didn’t have a lot of open looks. We had a little lead but didn’t close the game.

“I’m super excited that we knocked off an exceptionally good Montana team. They played with urgency. It was an unbelievable effort. I like how they responded.”

EWU has difficult road games at the Montana schools and Idaho State in the closing weeks of conference play.

“Playing a team a second time after you’ve beaten them the first time is sometimes the challenge,” Gleason said. “That’s something we’ll address and highlight. We have to improve from the first time.”

The key, Gleason said, is to finish in the top two in the final standings to get a first-round bye in the conference tournament.

Road doesn’t get easier

The difficult stretch of the schedule for Washington State continues Friday.

It was made much more challenging with the loss of maybe the best player in school history, Charlisse Leger-Walker.

Two weekends ago, WSU upset then-No. 2-ranked UCLA after losing two days earlier to 11th-ranked USC.

In their first games without Leger-Walker, the Cougars fell to sixth-ranked Colorado and No. 20 Utah last weekend.

WSU (15-8, 4-6 Pac-12) plays host to Cal (13-10, 3-8) on Friday and fourth-ranked Stanford (20-3, 9-20 on Sunday.

Stanford is tied atop the conference with Colorado (19-3, 9-2) and has never lost to WSU.

WSU coach Kamie Ethridge thought the Cougars should have picked up at least one win last weekend.

“It’s been a good week,” Ethridge said. “Obviously disappointed that we couldn’t pull off a win last week. Looking back at the film and regrouping (against Colorado) … had some empty possessions late in the game. We left a lot of points out there.”

The Cougars know they can still improve.

“We’re still trying to figure out how we can maintain consistency throughout the entire game,” Ethridge said.

“Need our guard game and our bench to perform at a higher level than we did (last) weekend.”

There’s reason for hope, Ethridge said.

“It can be disheartening to lose and they take it hard,” she said. “We can’t help but walk away feeling like we can compete and have some confidence based on how we played two of the top teams in the league (and) two of the top teams in the country.”