Gonzaga took on Toledo in today's game in the season's home opener and were able to bounce back nicely after a tough loss against the Cougars on Thursday with a 21 point win against an unranked Rockets team that received some votes in the preseason national polls.
As with Wazzu game, Gonzaga came out hot in the first quarter by taking an 11 point lead before allowing their first basket at the midway mark. The Bulldogs finished the quarter with up 27-12 led by 8 points from both Yvonne and Kayleigh. The Zags shot 71% from the field, including 2-4 from deep, and won the turnover battle with just 4 compared to Toledo's 5 that they converted into 6 points. Despite 9 total rebounds, the Zags continued to get beat on the offensive glass by allowing 4 while also giving up 8 points in the paint, which isn't really reassuring given that Toledo isn't a particularly strong outside shooting team so you'd expect us to tighten up inside.
The second quarter started off a little disjointed for the Bulldogs as they coughed up 5 turnovers in the first five minutes (only 1 the rest of the way) and some poor shooting from everyone not named Yvonne Ejim, who ended the quarter with 11 of Gonzaga's 17 points on 5-7 shooting while also contributing 4 rebounds (all on the offensive glass). The team didn't have a great shooting performance as they were missing open jumpers (0-7 three pointers in the quarter and just 2-11 for the half) and could only shoot 35.3% from the field. Despite Yvonne's strong performance, it was a bit worrying to see only one other Zag, Eliza, putting up a field goal in the quarter. The defense was struggling with drives into the paint, but were able to limit Toledo to just 1 offensive rebound while looking a bit more connected on switches and rotations. That being said, it wasn't perfect, and Fortier let us all know by saying she was not happy with the defensive performance. I think this perfectionist attitude will pay off as the season rolls on and I'm happy to see it. Thankfully, the poor shooting and defensive woes didn't show up in the boxscore as the Zags led 44-31 entering the half.
Coming out of halftime, the Gonzaga offense started a bit stronger in the first five minutes by shooting 4-8 from the field, 2-4 from deep, and not depending on just Ejim as four other players contributed to the scoring. As the quarter went along, Kayleigh took over by scoring 11 points including three from deep while Brynna was able to break her second quarter slump by draining two three pointers. Overall, the offense broke out for 27 points by shooing 9-13 from the field and 6-8 from three point range. Despite the comments from Fortier entering the half, the defense didn't look particularly sharp as they seemed to get a bit lost with switches and allowed 16 points in the paint, 5 offensive rebounds, and a 6-0 run towards the end of the quarter. However, the Zags held the lead at 71-52 entering the fourth quarter.
The final quarter, the game became more physical on the inside with Toledo picking up six fouls and Gonzaga three fouls in the first five minutes. Toledo's Mikonowicz fouled out at the six minute mark and Ejim picking up her fourth that would keep off the court until the 5 minute mark before ultimately fouling out two minutes later for the second game in a row. The quarter didn't feature much flow with lots of stops and starts due to the number of fouls (8 for Toledo and 7 for Gonzaga) as well as two fouls being reviewed by the officials. This was evident in gameplay as neither team could get much going on the offensive end outside of free throws, but Toledo's change of style didn't equate to any substantial gains on their deficit. With Gonzaga holding a 20-point lead and the game firmly out of reach for the Rockets, Fortier went deep into the bench with Peyton Muma, Claire O'Connor and Naya Ojukwu entering the game after Ejim fouled out. Muma looked aggressive with the ball in her hands as she attacked defenders and made a nice pass to O'Connor for her first collegiate points on a banked three pointer. Naya was a called for foul that I would describe as light but showcased her athleticism to go up and challenge opponents at the rim. The young players finished off the game with a strong victory 91-70.
Ejim led all players with 22 points (8-10 FG; 6-7 FT), Kayleigh stepped up with 21 points (8-14 FG; 3-8 3FG), and Brynna made her impact felt from deep with four three pointers on ten attempts. I still think the team gave up too many offensive rebounds (13), given that they out-rebounded the Rockets 43-29. I think some of that issue can be attributed to Toledo having a poor shooting night as they shot just 40% from the field and an abysmal 4-15 from deep with just 66.7% conversion at the charity stripe, so there were lots of rebounding opportunities, but I still believe improving in this area will be essential to improved defensive performances as preventing 2nd chance opportunities can go a long way to gaining and keeping momentum.
While the night featured some ups and downs from the Zags, this is actually the type of overall performance I expect more than not this season as the offense put up big points to challenge their opposition to keep up against a defense that will bend at times, but won't break down. With three games in the bag, I have some specific concerns that I want to address.
First, I'm a bit concerned about Ejim's foul trouble issues this year having fouled out twice and picking up 4 in the Montana game. All of these are limiting her minutes and she will likely be targeted by other teams as a way to limit her impact on the offense. When on the court she's looking like the focal point on offense for this team and when she has to exit for rest or, more commonly, due to foul trouble, the team seems to struggle with their transition to utilize the other personnel entering as her replacement.
Second, and something that I believe goes hand in hand with the first concern, Fortier is still opting for a fairly tight bench rotation with really only 2-3 players seeing substantial time off the bench. This could be seen as a good problem because the starters are so strong, but I think this could be an issue when some players get into foul trouble, have tough nights on the floor, or are just tired from the general wear and tear they will certainly experience as the season goes forward. I'm also a bit concerned that those bench players look quite hesitant to be aggressive with their time on the floor, particularly on the offensive end. I do think that Ojukwu's minutes will increase as the season goes along given the recent trend, which could bode well if Ejim continues with her foul troubles, but I don't think the same could be confidently said for other players unless there have been some injuries or other concern limiting minutes so far.
Third, Brynna Maxwell has been struggling offensively in the three games this year as she's shooting 9-28 from the field (32.1%) and 6-19 from deep (31.6%). She seems to be forcing some shot attempts but also seems to be missing wide open attempts at times. In this game, she showed some improvement, but I think she could have easily had two additional three pointers and would have liked her to have held back on a couple. This could be due to some additional usage on the defensive end with McKayla's departure as my eye always seems to find her on the primary player for each team we have faced this year, but it could also just be that shooting the basketball is hard and at times, they just won't fall like others. I do have faith as the season goes on, but it's something I'll be watching closely as the season progresses.
The Bulldogs will take on University of North Florida Ospreys at home on November 15th at 9pm EST and will be featured on ESPN+. I'll make sure to get a game preview out a bit earlier than at the exact time of tip-off this time around.
What did you think of the game? Disagree with my points of concern or have more to add?