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Zags’ frontcourt powers Gonzaga to win over Portland, 76-65

Career-highs from Melody Kempton and Yvonne Ejim more than helped buoy an off night by the backcourt.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Stanford at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Career nights by Melody Kempton and Yvonne Ejim paced the Zags in their first game back since mid-December as Gonzaga beat the Portland Pilots, 76-65.

From the beginning, it looked like both squads were feeling the rust of their respective COVID pauses. Portland hadn’t played a game Dec. 20, one day longer than the Zags last go round on Dec. 21.

Although the two teams shot well, both combined for 10 fouls and 11 turnovers in the first half. Lazy passes and fouls 90 feet away from the hoop peppered the first 10 minutes of play, with the Pilots taking a 16-12 lead off a buzzer-beating three by Maddie Muhlheim.

The Zags opened up the second quarter looking a bit more rusty, but had a secret weapon waiting to go off in Melody Kempton. Kempton exploded for 13 points in the second quarter, entering halftime leading all scorers with 19 points off of 8-for-10 shooting. That was enough to give the Zags a 34-33 lead at half.

That was a hard fought one point lead at half, however. Alex Fowler, who normally averages 17 points per game, had zero points off four missed threes at halftime. Haylee Andrews, who averages 12 points, was more effective, drawing a couple of charges and scoring seven points in the first 20 minutes. But she also sat for the final five minutes of the second quarter with two fouls.

The Zags could not keep Fowler quiet forever, however. The Portland scorer found her stroke, scoring 12 points in the third quarter, punctuated by a hail mary three as time expired that took a hard bounce on the rim before falling in.

Luckily, for Gonzaga, Ejim came ready to play. After Kempton picked up two quick fouls to start the third quarter, the Zags continued to aggressively attack Portland’s zone through the high post, finding success in feeding the ball to Ejim. Ejim paced the Zags with eight points in the third quarter and continued the streak through the fourth, ultimately fouling out in the fourth quarter, but not before setting a career-high of 22 points and matching her career-high in rebounds with 10.

All in all, it was a fantastic effort by the Zags against a good Portland team. After turning the ball over seven times in the first 10 minutes, Gonzaga clamped down enough, finishing with 15 turnovers. In a game for the Zags in which the three-point threat wasn’t there, the Zags abused Portland in the paint, scoring 42 points down low, led by Kempton’s career-high 25 points.

For a team coming off a COVID pause, this is exactly the game you want to see to open the conference. The Zags’ game against Santa Clara on Saturday is postponed, so their next go will be at Pacific, next Thursday.