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Gonzaga Women's Basketball

Legacy on the rise: Gonzaga’s Yvonne Ejim keeps grinding, with dreams of No. 15 someday heading to the rafters

The Gonzaga women’s basketball team’s starting lineup was a foregone conclusion before the 2023-24 season tipped off.

The starters included four returning graduates, coupled with senior forward Yvonne Ejim.

Even though Ejim could exercise a chance to play one more year – her COVID season – it was genuinely thought coach Lisa Fortier was going to have to replace all five starters next year.

Hold that thought.

Ejim announced Thursday she’s coming back, a decision she said she has thought about since last year.

Building the 2024-25 GU lineup around the probable West Coast Conference player of the year is a nice place to start.

“What I love about her is she’s done it the way we envisioned it, which is not how it happens very often anymore,” Fortier said. “People don’t come in and do their role as a freshman and expand their role as sophomores. People aren’t willing to do that and put in the time like that anymore.”

Ejim did. And then she took advantage of a rare opportunity late her freshman season.

Three starters came down with the stomach flu the night before the WCC Tournament championship game. Fortier turned to little-used Ejim to fill a starting role in the final against Brigham Young.

It was an unusual opportunity that gave Gonzaga fans a glimpse of Ejim’s potential.

“We needed people on the floor so they had no choice but to play me,” Ejim said, laughing.

All Ejim did was score a career-high and team-leading 13 points, including eight during GU’s fourth-quarter rally, and grab nine rebounds in the thrilling 43-42 Gonzaga victory. Her rebound in the closing seconds set up the game-winning shot by Jill Townsend.

The 6-foot-1 Ejim has had countless memorable moments as a Zag, but her coming-out party in the tournament title game ranks as one of the best.

“It was a big starter for me, especially at the end of the year propelling me into my sophomore year,” Ejim recalled.

Until that game, Ejim saw very little action. She developed a friendship with teammate Louise Forsythe, a senior from Langley, British Columbia, and they spent several hours of their own time working on their skills and playing one-on-one.

“Even though I didn’t get to play much, I truly cherish the moments I had with Lou. If I didn’t have them I don’t know if I’d be the player I am today. That’s what really started it off for me.

“I wouldn’t have played the way I did in the conference championship game my freshman year if I hadn’t played with Lou.”

Ejim’s minutes increased measurably as a sophomore – so much so that she was named the WCC sixth woman of the year.

Last year, Ejim was a WCC First Team selection and had strong player of the year credentials – an award that went to teammate Kaylynne Truong.

Ejim should be a unanimous selection for the honor next week, though. On Monday she earned her league-best sixth WCC player of the week award. She is averaging a team-leading 20.1 points and 8.4 rebounds per game.

Brynna Maxwell is one of the four graduates leaving Gonzaga after this season. She knows Ejim will take it up another level next season.

“She’s the heart and soul and makes everything go right now,” Maxwell said. “I can only imagine what it’s going to be like next year. I was joking before the game” – when Ejim announced her intent to return next season – “that there are probably some WCC coaches thinking ‘oh, we’ve got to deal with her another year.’ ”

Fortier hasn’t seen Ejim hit a plateau.

Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Yvonne Ejim (15) shoots the ball against the San Diego Toreros during the first half of a women’s college basketball game on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024, at McCarthey Athletic Center in Spokane, Wash.  (TYLER TJOMSLAND/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Yvonne Ejim (15) shoots the ball against the San Diego Toreros during the first half of a women’s college basketball game on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024, at McCarthey Athletic Center in Spokane, Wash. (TYLER TJOMSLAND/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

“I just love how she continues to improve and evolve,” Fortier said. “She is not a stagnant person, she’s not a stagnant player. She’s always pushing to be better. She’s as hard a worker as we have had. Talented players are talented players, but it’s nice when your talented players are your hardest workers.”

Only one Gonzaga women’s basketball player’s number hangs in the McCarthey Athletic Center rafters – No. 21, worn by do-everything point guard Courtney Vandersloot.

Perhaps someday, Ejim’s No. 15 will find a place next to 21.

“I think it’s a definite possibility,” Fortier said. “Her contributions have her set up to be going in that direction.”

A smile broke across Ejim’s face when asked about having her number retired.

“I would be so proud to see No. 15 up there,” Ejim said. “I’m just trying to do so much for this program and create a legacy. It would mean a lot to see my number up there. I work every day toward that. Even if it doesn’t happen, I’d still be so grateful.”

Some thought Ejim would decide to graduate and prepare for the WNBA draft, which is in mid-April. But she said she wanted to maximize her experience at Gonzaga. Pro ball, for now, can wait. And so can profiting on her basketball career.

Ejim isn’t eligible to receive money from name, image and likeness because she’s a Canadian citizen – which possibly alleviated some pressure to leave GU for another school.

“I’m really happy to stay with this program. I’ve built a home here and that in and of itself is what brought me here,” Ejim said.

Ejim’s career outside of basketball, for that matter, will also be put on hold. She wants to be a doctor – though she hasn’t decided what her specialty will be. She will have at least four years of medical school and three years in residency before that can happen.

When she’s done playing basketball, she’ll return to Calgary, Alberta, where she was born and raised.

“I love Canada so much,” said Ejim. “It’s where I want to be.”

Fortier is glad she gets to be around Ejim for another year.

“She’s a regular person until she steps out on the court and she’s super human,” Fortier said.

Fortier’s husband, Craig, an assistant coach, is Ejim’s position coach. He said Ejim does things in practice that many times don’t show up in games.

“There’s a diversity to her game that’s pretty broad,” Craig said. “There’s a whole other array of skills being developed. In the next eight to 10 months we’ll see more on display I would suspect.”

He expects Ejim to take another jump next season.

“Without question,” he said. “She’s learning at a high rate. She has the capacity to continue to develop. She’s nowhere near her ceiling yet.”

And that will keep WCC opponents searching high and low for ways to stop her.