Gonzaga hosted the New Mexico Lobos for their final game of 2023 and head into the holidays with their head held high after defeating UNM 67-56. While I didn’t cover New Mexico as much as I would normally do in the preview, I was expecting a defense minded game and thats what we got as Gonzaga scored their season-low in points while also holding their opposition to second lowest total on the year by one point. Before we get into how this game played out, lets review some of the big changes that were announced yesterday.
First, Kayleigh would miss this game as she suffered a broken left pinky finger, which is a big blow for the team given that she’s third on the team with 13.4 points per game and second on the team with 4.6 assists per game. During the previous game against Arizona I saw her on the bench in the second quarter holding her hand and grimacing while talking with Assistant Coach Stacy Clinesmith before coming back sporting some buddy taping on her ring and little finger. Given that she came back into the game, I had hope that she might escape any serious injury, but alas, the issue is clearly bothering her. While there was no formal announcement during the game about her expected time out of action, if she has the kind of fracture I’ve seen before, she could be out for several weeks given that the pinky finger is the most important for hand grip strength. Thankfully, the team won’t play again until the first WCC conference game against the Portland Pilots on 1/04 so while it’s possible she comes back then, the injury has to sting for Kayleigh given her quality performance against Arizona.
Second, the team welcomed back Bree Salenbien and Destiny Burton as they returned from injuries. Bree, the highest rated recruit the Bulldogs have snagged coming out of high school, has had a tough run during her time at Gonzaga with injuries limiting her time across the her three years with the program so it was great to see her shake the cobwebs and get her first basket in nearly two years. Given the large brace seen on her left knee and previous injuries, she will likely need some time to get back into the rhythm of the game, but she looked pretty spry last night making quick passes and nifty behind the back dribbling that caught Lobos defenders off guard. Her presence will be important while Kayleigh is out injured and to spell the starting guards as the season progresses onwards. Destiny, the senior forward, was also sporting a knee brace on her left knee and her veteran experience down low gives Coach Fortier a welcome presence of the bench to spell the front court. I’m not sure she’ll see as much court time as Bree given the presence of Maud and potentially Naya, but having her available will be important. Both were welcomed with loud cheers by their teammates and the 5200 fans in attendance.
The game started off Gonzaga jumping out to an 8-4 lead within four minutes, but New Mexico subsequently went on a 7-0 run across the next three minutes to secure their first lead of the game. After trading baskets, the Lobo offense stopped scoring for the remaining three minutes while Gonzaga’s Ejim and Maxwell made big shots to help the Bulldogs take the lead 17-16 heading into the quarter.
I highlighted New Mexico’s defense in the game preview, but their commitment to slowing the game’s pace to that of a snail seemed like the bigger piece to restrict Gonzaga’s offense as they routinely played deep into the shot clock and prevented Gonzaga from converting any transition baskets or second-chance points. For an offense that has shot as poorly from beyond the arc as the Lobos have this year (27% heading into this game), you wouldn’t know it from their boxscore as they launched 9 from three, but only converted 2 with both coming from Viane Cumber who led her team in scoring with 6 at the period’s conclusion. That’s not to say the Bulldog offense was great as they shot 6-13 overall, but that’s mostly owing to Eliza’s rough quarter that saw her go 0-3. Unlike many games this season, Yvonne did not lead the Zags in scoring at the break as that honor fell to Brynna Maxwell with her 8 points fueled by her two three pointers
Gonzaga started the second quarter with a 7-0 run across the first four minutes, but then went on a nearly three minute scoring drought while New Mexico scored 7 of their own to crawl back within a single point. However, the scoring picked up thereafter as Kaylynne nailed two three pointers that were countered by Viane Cumber adding two of her own shortly thereafter as the Bulldogs narrowly held a 32-39 going into halftime.
Overall, this quarter was an ugly performance by both teams on the offensive side of the court as the Bulldogs shot just 5-13 while the Lobos shot 4-15. The only players to score more than a single bucket for their teams were Kayleigh with 6 points and Viane and 8 points. For Gonzaga, part of this owes to New Mexico’s defensive approach that restricted the Bulldogs to zero points in transition along with zero second chance scoring opportunities as the Lobos allowed just one offensive rebound compared to seven of their own. About the only thing going well for Gonzaga at this stage was their ability to capitalize on the 7 turnovers made by New Mexico into 11 points.
It was also an interesting referee performance that saw Yvonne get called for an offensive foul after she apparently pushed the 6’5” Charlotte Kohl out from underneath the basket on a drive around the 7th minute as well as Destiny picking up a technical foul after retaliating to a shoulder from Viane Cumber at the 3:30 mark. As I was told growing up, the referees will always call the retaliation move, but it’s hard to be too upset with Destiny given her circumstances this season.
pass connected. ✅ pic.twitter.com/CLyM1MX2Ld— Gonzaga Women's Basketball (@ZagWBB) December 22, 2023
As in most games this season, the Zags came out of the halftime break energized from Coach Fortier’s speech to embark on a 10-2 run across the first five minutes fueled by Yvonne’s 7 points and Brynna’s fourth three pointer of the game. Bree Salenbien had a huge personal moment at 3:30 by making her first basket in 644 days on a pull-up bunny coming off the perimeter drive. She had the biggest smile on her face and both bench players and fans went crazy. Wonderful to see. New Mexico’s Paris Lauro would do her best to keep her team in the game by adding 3 three’s across the final minutes of the quarter to cut their deficit to 7, but free throws by Yvonne, a mid-range jumper by Eliza, and a three pointer from Kayleigh helped the Bulldogs increase their lead to 52-40 at the quarter’s conclusion.
Despite New Mexico’s transition defense continuing to restrict Gonzaga and the Bulldogs giving up 4 offensive rebounds, it was nice to see Ejim get her offense going this quarter by scoring 10 points after only having 6 total points across the first twenty minutes. I was also happy with the improved team defense as they restricted the Lobos to just 11 points on 4-17 field goals. Shoutout the authoritative blocks by Cali and Eliza while also not forgetting about Maxwell drawing the offensive foul to stop a 2-1 fast break.
**I would normally put a clip into this section, but I couldn’t find Bree’s bunny to post so this gap serves as our collective memory of her return to the scoring sheet.**
Eliza kicked off the fourth quarter scoring by making her first three pointer of the game. The Lobos would respond quickly though with 5 points, but couldn’t keep their flow going as they committed another shot clock violation due to some good team defense from the Zags. Both teams would endure scoring droughts for the next two and a half minutes and by the time New Mexico would score again, it was a bit too late and their defense couldn’t prevent Gonzaga from scoring so they could never cut the deficit to less than 7 as the game concluded 67-56.
While a nine point victory and lowest scoring performance this year may look less than ideal, I think Gonzaga did what they had to coming off a quick turn around from Phoenix against a New Mexico team determined to play a slow, grinding style. I’ve already highlighted some of the big concerns with regards to losing the rebounding battle (35-30 at game’s conclusion), lack of second-chance points (just 1), and lack of transition points so I’m going to highlight some positives.
Despite shooting below their season average (48.1% tonight), the Bulldogs made 9-17 from deep, their highest percentage of the year, behind 4 three’s from both Kaylynne and Brynna. Yvonne continued her efficient shooting by going 9-11 and scored her ninth 20-point game of the season in just 25 minutes. Kaylynne picked up the slack from Kayleigh’s absence by adding 7 assists on just 3 turnovers as the team dished out 21 assists on the night. Brynna didn’t make either of her two shots from within the arce, but went 4-8 from three point range, which is where she’s really needed to help this team. I’m also feeling optimistic with Bree coming back to action that this team could have a reliable point guard outside of the Truong sisters.
Speaking of turnovers, after coughing up 20 against Arizona, the team only committed 10 tonight so certainly improvements made on that end, which is even more remarkable when considering that they were missing a top guard in Kayleigh. And in a game that often felt close, Gonzaga held the lead for just over 33 minutes and only trailed in the latter stages of the first quarter. New Mexico may not have played many quality opponents outside of Gonzaga during their non-conference schedule, but their team make-up and play style is tough and one that takes a lot of fortitude to crack open.
I’d also like to add that I’m very impressed this team is walking away from this tough non-conference schedule, one that is ranked 6th in the nation, 13-2 with their loses coming against teams that should be expected to make the Big Dance in Louisville and Wazzou. So let’s take this win, rest up before conference play, hope Kayleigh’s finger heals up well, and the team takes it to the Pilots, who were predicted to finish second in the WCC, on January 4th.