Well, Gonzaga extended the winning streak against Eastern Washington to 18 games, but it was not an easy trip to Cheney. Before we jump in for a review on the game, I’d like to know how you like (or don’t) these new black uniforms the Zags have been bumping. Personally, I think they look better than the N7 uniforms (not a Mass Effect reference) and better than the black unis worn by the Men’s team previously.
The Zags jumped out to an early 8-point courtesy of some wonderful shooting by Kaylynne and the game briefly looked like it could be a runaway. However, Gonzaga couldn’t maintain this lead due some impressive defense by Eastern against Yvonne (just 2 points on 1-3 shooting) via fronting and quick double-teams that disrupted her rhythm, Kayleigh picking up two fouls that limited her to just 5 minutes in which she couldn’t score, 4 turnovers leading to 7 easy points, and a 4 minute scoring drought in which we could only make 3 points. This, along with two big three pointers from Jaydia Martin, allowed Eastern to chip away at the lead and end the quarter only down 20-17.
Eastern carried their positive momentum from the end of the first quarter into the second as the Gonzaga defense looked sloppy with missed assignments and poor communication on switches that allowed the Eagles to tie the game multiple times before finally taking the lead up to 7 midway thru the quarter. Jamie Loera, younger sister of former Zag Jessie Loera, spearheaded this run with 3 big shots from deep and showed why she was selected to the Big Sky Preseason Team. Thankfully, the Bulldogs were able to correct some of these defensive mistakes and kick up their intensity to hold Eastern scoreless over the last four minutes of the quarter. Meanwhile, the offense, notably Ejim and Kaylynne, found its shooting touch and regained the lead to enter the half 37-35.
While the stats at the end of halftime look good on paper (14-27 FG and 4-6 3FG), I was a bit concerned as 25 of their 35 points came from just Yvonne and Kaylynne, which is atypical for a team boasting five players averaging 10+ points. I think this relates to several factors: first, the Zags coughed up 8 turnovers, including 4 from Kaylynne alone, that broke up the offensive flow and led to easy second-chance points that allowed Eastern to stay in the game. Second, Kayleigh’s foul troubles in the first quarter resulted in just 7 total minutes in the half and zero points, which is killer given her scoring so far this season. Third, there were an alarming amount of close range misses from players like Eliza, Esther, and Maud that I would expect them to make based on their history and one could argue, they need to make moving forward.
While the first half could be best described as one team making a run while the other fell into a rut, the second half was a far more grueling battle between two teams that wanted to walk away with the W. In the third quarter alone, fans watched the lead change or score tie a total of 7 times. Jaylissa Lawrence of Eastern took her turn to lead the Eagles in scoring with 10 points on 4-6 shooting including 2 three-pointers, while for Gonzaga, Yvonne Ejim fulfilled her role as the rock we can lean on by adding 13 points on 5-7 shooting. Despite that dependability, the rest of the team struggled to do the same as they shot only 4-16 overall and 0-5 from deep. Thankfully, the Zags did not allow their ineffective shooting to totally drag them down as they grabbed 11 offensive rebounds that helped account for 13 second chance points (note that both teams scored 22 points this period) as the game went into the fourth quarter, 59-57. To put this rebounding performance into perspective, Eastern only grabbed 5 offensive rebounds the entire game!
This same type of back-forth, personally maddening, gameplay continued into the fourth. The Gonzaga offense looked better to start the final period with Kaylynne making the first five points and Brynna converted her two trips to the charity stripe for five points, but Eastern wouldn’t go away as their guards, particularly Aaliyah Alexander, exploited our perimeter defense to create lay-ups, open jumpers, or create fouls. Gonzaga hit an unfortunate scoring drought for three minutes that was highlighted by a maddening possession in which they grabbed 5 offensive rebounds, but couldn’t convert any of those second chance opportunities as Brynna missed 4 three pointers. Down by 5 with just over four minutes remaining, Brynna shook off her demons and nailed one from deep to bring the game within a possession. Jacinta Buckley responded with her only field goal of the evening in 27 minutes of play by making a three point dagger from the corner to regain the 5 point lead. However, the Zags dug deep and continued to play hard with big rebounds on both ends of the court as Cali Stokes, Kayleigh, and Eliza Hollingsworth made big shots entering the final minute of play. After Eliza converted a layup under the basket off the inbound play and Kaylynne made her free throws after Eastern was forced to foul, Gonzaga finally took their first lead since midway through the quarter, 82-78.
But the Eagles were not giving up as Aaliyah Alexander made a layup with 10 seconds left that forced the Zags into an inbounding play with no timeouts left. As Kayleigh went to the touch line to restart play, I was starting to mentally celebrate the victory after the tough back-forth of the previous 39.5 minutes, but she misread the play and tossed an errant pass over towards the Eastern bench that Kaylynne saved from going out of bounds by diving into the scorers table and throwing it back into an Eagles player that was clearly surprised and essentially forced EWU to use their final timeout. While hindsight tells me Eastern should have just scrambled to the hoop, Kaylynne’s amazing effort likely caught everyone off guard and left the home team in a state of shock that the ball was still live and clock running. After the timeout, the Jaylissa Lawrence couldn’t convert the three point attempt and the clock expired to conclude an exciting Gonzaga win.
What did I just watch? How did Gonzaga almost throw that game away? Am I okay? I have no idea to all of these questions, even a day later as I’m writing this. I will say however that my initial reaction to this game was one of disappointment in Gonzaga because I felt that the offense looked far more disjointed than expected and the defense let us down. However, upon further reflection and looking at the boxscore and play-by-play in more detail, I have to tip my hat the Eastern Washington Eagles as they played amazing ball. They scored more points than their season average (72ppg versus 80), shot the ball at a higher efficiency (48% FG and 31.6% 3FG entering the game compared to 51.9% FG and 52% 3FG tonight), and passed my expert eye test (lol). Sure, Gonzaga was not helped by poor overall performances from Kayleigh (20 minutes, 2 points, 1-6 shooting, 4 fouls), Brynna (11 points, 2-9 shooting, 22 minutes), or the multiple missed shots on second chance opportunities, but I think Eastern did their best to put the Bulldogs into an uncomfortable position from the jump.
As for Gonzaga, I just want to highlight a stat that may be underrated, but is clearly a longstanding issue with the Men’s team: FREE THROWS (as an aside, I nearly wrote an article some time ago looking at 15 years of stats on that team’s performances some years back but never did and lost it in the shuffle of life). This team convert 16-17 attempts tonight and most importantly, went 7-7 in the fourth quarter when there were chances the match could have been lost. Kudos to them.
As usual, Yvonne Ejim played huge with 34 minutes in which she produced 23 points on 10-17 shooting in ways that maybe she hasn’t had to do as much this season, but still did excellently. Kaylynne seemed to have spurts of success broken up by droughts, but she also dropped 23 points on 7-11 shooting and 4-7 from deep. For as much as it may seem like I’m unhappy with Eliza, she managed to score 12 points to go along with 14 rebounds (5 offensive; again Eastern could only muster 5 all game) that all seemed to come at big moments. And Cali Stokes put in 25 minutes of hard work as she seemed to be Fortier’s preferred defensive option against the athletic and driving Eagles guards. I also want to bring up the rebounding discrepancy again as Gonzaga won that front 42-25 including 20-5 on the offensive end. While a lot of those rebounds came on missed bunnies, the fact that they stayed hungry and determined should show us fans a lot.
So let us take this win and move on to the next game, which will be a massive opportunity to make another statement as the Bulldogs take on the Stanford Cardinal in the McCarthey Center this Sunday at 4pm ET.