The Gonzaga women, who have flirted outside the top 25 since the season began, made an impact statement over the weekend at the Battle 4 Atlantis, defeating Louisville and Tennessee and earning crucial non-conference wins that will pay massive seeding dividends come March.
Going into the tournament, the Battle 4 Atlantis was always going to be a bruiser. The bracket featured the preseason No. 3 (Texas), No. 5 (Tennessee), No. 7 (Louisville), and No. 23 (South Dakota State) teams. Both UCLA and the Zags were picking up votes. The only “down” teams were Rutgers and Marquette.
For Gonzaga, they drew Louisville in the opening round and a chance for revenge against Hailey Van Lith and company for the NCAA Tournament loss to end last season. The Zags struck early, building up enough of a lead to barely hold on as Louisville clawed their way back. With big performances from Brynna Maxwell (21 points) and Eliza Hollingsworth (18 points), the Zags outscored the Cardinals 18-6 in overtime to earn the big upset.
However, Kayleigh Truong suffered an ankle injury in the win over Louisville and would end up missing the next contest against Marquette, a surprise opponent after their upset of Texas in the opening round. Poor shooting doomed the Zags, but big performances from Maxwell (18 points) and Kaylynne Truong (18 points), kept it to just a four-point loss.
In the third-place game, the Zags faced off against a Tennessee squad in the middle of a free-fall, and they took advantage. Still largely, without Kayleigh Truong, McKayla Williams was the unsung hero of the first half, scoring 12 points and grabbing eight rebounds. The main star was the stalwart of the Gonzaga front court, Yvonne Ejim. Including hitting the game-winning bucket with 12.4 seconds left, Ejim scored the final nine points for Zags on her way to 22 points and nine rebounds (including a rare three-point make).
Although Tennessee was no longer the No. 5 team by the time the Zags pulled off the win, they still were ranked No. 23. That gives the Zags two wins over ranked teams so far, with, as it stands now, one more ranked opponent on Dec. 4, at No. 2 Stanford.
The Zags, who haven’t fully gotten the appreciation of AP voters quite yet, are ranked No. 20 on HerHoopStats.com. They’ve achieved that level missing their starting point guard for the past two games. Perhaps the most interesting point, Coach Lisa Fortier has seemingly taken a page from her male counterpart and tightened the rotation.
Fortier, who generally runs a deep bench (last season, Cierra Walker led the squad with just 25.9 minutes per game) has slightly reversed that course through six games this season. The rotation is essentially just eight players, with Maxwell, Maud Huijbens, and Calli Stokes earning meaningful chunks of bench minutes. If one excludes the fact Kayleigh Truong played just seven minutes last night, the five starters are each averaging over 28 minutes per game, topped out by Kaylynne Truong at 31.8.
They are achieving this success with what is the tried and true method of the women’s program: a solid defense, slowing the game down, crashing the offensive glass, and taking quality shots.
A couple of key factors this season also have all signs pointing to a decent NCAA Tournament run for the Zags.
First off, the addition of Maxwell to the squad has boosted the three-point threat. The Zags are currently ranked No. 30 in the country in three-point percentage. Second, the team has been dominating from the free throw line, shooting 81.8 percent (good for ninth-best) off of nearly 20 attempts per game. For a team like Gonzaga that generally isn’t pushing the pace as much as some other squads, those free points are crucial to success. Converting them at a high rate reaps dividends for the final score.
That adds up to a squad that should be looking at the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, something the Zags have not accomplished since the 2014-15 season.