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Gonzaga vs. Belmont Preview: Don’t overlook the rising Bruins

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Zags will outsize the young Bruins but will they outmatch them?

NCAA Womens Basketball: West Coast Conference Tournament-Gonzaga vs Portland Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

By now most Zags fans have seen that buzzer beater lobbed by senior Jill Townsend at the end of regulation to lock-up the Zags’ fifth straight NCAA tournament appearance and subsequently the highest seed they’ve earned in program history.

“When the chips were down and we needed a rally, our team just showed incredible grit and toughness and resilience, and I couldn’t be more proud of them,” Townsend said. Thankfully for Townsend and her teammates, the food poisoning is behind the Zags as well as the injuries that they’ve dealt with dating back to 2019.

Game Date: Monday, March 22

Game Time: 4:00 p.m. ET/1:00 p.m. PT

TV: ESPN2

Online: Watch ESPN

Location: Strahan Arena, San Marcos, TX

With a healthy roster the Zags will likely lean on their size when facing the Bruins. The Bulldogs have a couple inches in height at virtually every position on the floor and that was a major point of emphasis for Bruins head coach Bart Brooks heading into the game.

“We’re going to be smaller at all five positions,” Brooks said. “I think there are advantages to that. When you’re a bigger player and you always have someone underneath you defensively that’s something that isn’t always pleasant.”

Gonzaga’s offense is predicated on an inside-out scheme. The offense starts by having the post players drawing the defense to collapse and then find open shooters.

The Zags are one of the few teams that continue to play with two bigs rather than a spaced out four guard approach. That second big matchup is going to cause a lot of frustration for the Bruins who usually rotate the role of the second big and wing position.

“It’s not something we’re used to,” coach Lisa Fortier said. “We’re not a small team but we’re definitely not the biggest.”

Belmont’s preparation coming into the game has largely been on being able to let their solid guard-play operate.

“We’re going to do what we’ve been doing all year,” Brooks said. “Move the ball, spread the floor, [and] try to give our guards space to work.”

“So much of what we do is based on reading how we’re defended more than running a set.”

The lead-up for Gonzaga has allowed Fortier and the coaching staff to retool their offensive sets, scheme so new defensive looks and shoring up concepts they hadn’t been able to due to the grind of conference play.

“When you get into conference you start to have to game plan for teams,” Fortier said. “This team does that. This team has this player. So we’ve kind of been in prep mode and you don’t get to work on the area you need to improve.”

The main approach Gonzaga will need to have to not face an upset from a sneaky good Belmont team is by forcing the Bruins off of the three-point line and not to turn the ball over.

“They have a lot greater shooters and they get a lot of threes up so that’s going to be something we’re going to have to overcome,” senior Jenn Wirth said.

Freshman guard Destinee Wells and junior forward Conley Chinn are both solid perimeter shooters and average 17.6 and 12.5 points per game. Freshman guard Tuti Jones is averaging 3.09 steals per game, the tenth most in Division I, and Wells is not far behind her averaging over 2.5 steals per game as well.

“We’ve worked a little bit on double-teams,” Wirth said. “Just making reads… finding our guards and being able to find any teammate cutting to the basket or spotting up is super important.”

The Zags with their talent and experience are in a position to trust that their game and scheme will decide their games. This mindset has afforded a self-reliant look in a tumultuous season.

“One thing that’s been the motto this entire season is staying focused on us.” Wirth said. “With COVID, the facilities, and the chaos of the NCAA tournament there are a lot of things that are out of our control. But the thing that we can control is getting better in what we can do.”