The Gonzaga Bulldog women won their first NCAA Tournament game since 2015. They started the season with a program best 16-1 record, including a win over 8th-ranked Stanford (who made the Elite Eight). They shot up to number 12 in the AP Poll at the start of March, the best ranking in school history. They earned themselves a number five seed in the NCAA Tournament, also the best mark in program history. By all accounts, it was one of the most successful seasons we’ve ever seen. But because of how it all ended, it felt a little bittersweet.
Gonzaga won a thrilling, double-overtime WCC semi-final over Saint Mary’s when Zykera Rice nailed a buzzer beater. But they lost Laura Stockton and Jill Townsend to gruesome leg injuries. The emotional tole and some hot shooting from BYU gave the Cougars the WCC Title a day later. Coach Lisa Fortier left the bench in the fourth quarter, and we later learned her brother passed away.
Despite all the turmoil, the injuries, and the emotion, Gonzaga was still able to beat Little Rock in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. They went toe-to-toe with Oregon State on their home court in Corvallis, and had Stockton and/or Townsend been healthy, the result may have been different. But the fact they competed at such a high level given the circumstances says a lot about the program Lisa Fortier has built in Spokane.
Gonzaga used a nine-player rotation all year. Eight of the nine played between 20-29 minutes. The ninth, Melody Kempton, played 14 minutes, and was second on the team in blocks. Seniors Laura Stockton, Chandler Smith, and Zykera Rice were named All-WCC players. Rice led the team in scoring, Stockton led the team in assists, and Smith led the team in minutes played while doing a little bit of everything.
Jessie Loera really came on at the end of the season and led the team in steals in conference play. Katie Campbell shot 45 percent from deep, and at one point was third in the country in three-point percentage. Jill Townsend was the perfect energizer bunny off the bench and consistently hit big shots in crunch time. The Wirth twins, Jenn and LeeAnne, both took a step forward in their development in year two.
They built the team on defense and depth. Teams scored just 58 points per game and only shot 37.7 percent from the field. Gonzaga forced 16.7 turnovers a game and scored 18 points off them. They out-rebounded teams, had a better assist/turnover margin, and rarely got their shots blocked. Their one big weakness is that they hit fewer than five threes per game, which came back to haunt them against Oregon State in the tournament, when they hit no threes until the final two minutes.
The nice thing about having a ton of depth is that you have players ready to go the following season. Stockton, Smith, and Rice are gone, but six of the nine rotation players will be back and Lou Forsyth, the 10th player in the rotation who got minutes after Stockton and Townsend went down, will also be back. That’s seven players right off the bat. They also welcome three freshmen and two redshirts to the fold. Junior College transfer AnaMarie Virjoghe will slide into the front court. The 6’5 center from Romania averaged 15.4 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks in her one season at Northwest Christian. She was named Cascade Collegiate Conference Freshman of the Year and First Team All-CCC. She was also the MVP of the u18 National Championships as part of Romania’s national team. She is going to fill the void left behind by Rice.
Kylee Griffen was a top 100 recruit coming into this past season, but an early season injury forced the decision to redshirt her. She is a 6’2 wing with incredible scoring and rebounding ability. She averaged 20 and 10 her senior year of high school and was a McDonald’s All-American nominee. She can provide the stat-stuffing ability that Chandler Smith leaves behind, but with a little more scoring ability.
Then come the trio of freshmen. Eliza Hollingsworth is a 6’2 forward from Australia. With a crowded front court, she’s going to be fighting for minutes. She may not be a huge factor next year, but she has the ability to be a huge factor in the future when she adapts to the college game. She’s a versatile forward who rebounds well and has a ton of Australian national team experience.
Last but not least, the Truong Twins. Kayleigh and Kaylynne Truong are a pair of 5’8 guards from Texas. Kayleigh is more of a natural point guard who plays off ball screens really well, something Gonzaga does a lot of. Kaylynne is more of a “3-and-D” off-guard. In other words, she’s a good defender and can shoot from deep fairly well. There’s a need at the back-up point guard spot next year so I imagine Kayleigh may get minutes right away.
Congrats @Twinballerz on the season so far! Undefeated District Champs!! So glad I got to help you celebrate last night! #theymademeholdthetrophy #futurezags #twiceasnice #pointguardu pic.twitter.com/9gnAEmjMff— Lisa Mispley Fortier (@FortZagWBB) February 6, 2019
There are a couple ways Coach Fortier can go with her starting lineup. She can just start all of her returners, including Jill Townsend, who is supposed to be ready for the season, despite having a metal plate inserted in her leg. Or she can keep Townsend in her sixth man role where she excelled last year and insert someone else at the wing. Lou Forsyth could start if she takes the next step in her development. Will both Wirth twins start or will Virjoghe take the center spot?
Projected Lineup (10 player rotation)
Point Guard: Jessie Loera
Wing: Katie Campbell
Wing: Jill Townsend
Post: Jenn Wirth
Post: AnaMarie Virjoghe
6th: LeeAnne Wirth (post)
7th: Lou Forsyth (wing)
8th: Melody Kempton (post)
9th: Kylee Griffen (wing)
10: Kayleigh Truong (PG)
Limited minutes: Hollingsworth, Kaylynne Truong, Gillian Barfield
Final Word: There’s no reason that Gonzaga can’t get back to the Big Dance next season. They have plenty of experience coming back and some talented redshirts hitting the court. Lisa Fortier and her staff have this program operating at an incredibly high level, and if they continue their excellent player development, they will be a perennial top 25 team for years to come. Next year’s success will come down to Lou Forsyth taking the next step, AnaMarie Virjoghe becoming an instant force down low, and someone stepping up as the back-up point guard.