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#16 Gonzaga WBB Start Conference Play Hot

one might say the Toreros lost the bull(dog) fight

I think it’s safe to say that three games into WCC play, Gonzaga WBB looks scary

...for the opposition.

Admittedly, two of the three games were at home, but Gonzaga has looked in control, possibly dominant, in all of those matchups while securing victories in diverse ways. Yvonne Ejim is clearly the boss dog with her consistency and high quality performances, but each game has featured a different player stepping up alongside her. Against Portland, Brynna Maxwell dropped 21 points, her second highest total of the year. Against Santa Clara, Eliza Hollingsworth scored 18 points. And against USD, Kayleigh Truong erupted for 21 points, which was her first twenty point game since just before Thanksgiving. When a team has three or four players that can score in bunches alongside a potential All-American in Ejim, I can only imagine the heartburn felt by opposing coaches and players.

But before we get too deep into our pontifications regarding the future, let’s review yesterday’s home game against USD.

The first quarter started out as most Gonzaga games have this season: an Ejim layup. Maxwell followed that nearly automatic basket with her own, nearly automatic, three pointer assisted by none other than Yvonne. However, USD didn’t look phased as they made quality drives to the hoops for points, won the period’s rebounding margin 8-4 (including 3 offensive rebounds), and, most importantly, showed tenacity on defense by forcing the Gonzaga offense to initiate the offense much further away from the hoop than typical. This was effective for a time as the Toreros were able to climb within one point of the Bulldogs just after the midway media timeout. However, San Diego subsequently hit a cold streak and shot 1-9 to end the quarter down 21-13. For Gonzaga, all starters scored with Ejim leading the way with 7 and Maxwell just behind her with 5. There was a nice play in the dying minutes when Kayleigh drove past her matchup and into the paint before the Torero players swarmed her, but couldn’t stop her as she somehow wrapped the ball around a defender to find Ejim waiting below for the easy two. Check out the clip below:

  • The second quarter started off a bit slow with Gonzaga scoring just 7 (2-9 shooting), including a four minute stretch without a basket, and San Diego (2-8 shooting) just 6 across the first five minutes. I’m sure Coach Fortier was frustrated because her offense looked stagnant and the defense was allowing too much penetration from the perimeter, which created easy looks for the Toreros that they thankfully couldn’t convert. These difficulties were compounded by Gonzaga committing 7 fouls across the period that USD translated into 5 easy points. Importantly, this included Brynna picking up her second foul three minutes into the quarter and she didn’t see the court for the remainder of the period. Thankfully, Eliza Hollingsworth made a nice pass out of a collapsing Torero defense to Kaylynne Truong who subsequently nailed the wide open three pointer. Yvonne, having only scored 1 point thus far, must’ve heard that swish and realized she needed some action as she scored 7 additional points across the next two minutes to help the Bulldogs head into the break up 43-33. For the period, Yvonne again led Gonzaga with 8 while Kayleigh contributed 7 points in her seven minutes.

Notable stats at the half include:

Gonzaga:

  • 15-28 FG / 3-7 3FG / 10-15 FT / 18 rebounds (5-13) / 9 assists / 8 fouls / 5 turnovers
  • Ejim 15 / Kayleigh 11 / Kaylynne 6 / Maxwell 5 / Eliza 4 / Maud 2
  • Second chance points: 2
  • Points off turnovers: 2
  • Fouls: 8

San Diego:

  • 12-31 FG / 2-4 3FG / 7-9 FT / 17 rebounds (7-10) / 5 assists / 10 fouls / 6 turnovers
  • Sheffey 9 / Horstmeyer 8 / Afeaki 4 / two with 3 / three with 2
  • Second chance points: 4
  • Points off turnovers: 4
  • Fouls: 10

After a fairly terse half-time interview, I’m sure Coach Fortier had some words for her team in the locker room and this resulted in Kayleigh immediately driving to the free throw line and making a nice pull-up jumper. Gonzaga would subsequently score seven more unanswered points before Maxwell picked up her third foul after she tried to swipe the ball from Neubert’s hands on her roll to the hoop. While we don’t often think about Brynna’s defensive abilities, this clearly rattled the team as they allowed drive after drive, primarily by allowing Sheffey to get to her dominant left hand, that resulted in a 7-2 run across the next minute. We also saw USD start to roll with a three-quarter court pressure on most possessions, which didn’t create any turnovers, but slowed the offense’s rhythm just enough and highlighted my concern with how this team addresses pressure. Thankfully though, the Bulldogs dug deep and relied on their teammates for offensive contribution as six players scored this period to help Gonzaga enter the final period up 65-47.

After only playing 13 minutes across the previous three quarters, Brynna started the fourth quarter and subsequently committed her fourth foul within the first minute. Despite looking visibly frustrated, Fortier left the star senior in the game for a while longer and was rewarded with four points across her four minutes of playing time. With the game firmly out of reach, the bench played for much of the remaining five minutes and we got to see Destiny Burton score her first points of the season as the Zags won 85-67.

My takeaways from the game are as follows:

  • Ejim’s amazing, which is obvious if you’ve been following this team all season, but against a tough and physical Torero team, she scored 25 points on 10-18 shooting while adding 10 rebounds, including 6 on the offensive end and only committing one foul on a night with 35 fouls called.
  • Kayleigh broke out of her shooting slump by scoring 21 points on 8-9 shooting, including 1-1 from deep, and amassing 7 assists with zero turnovers. This was her best shooting game and first twenty point game since the trip to Texas for the Van Chancellor Classic before Thanksgiving so that’s got to be a confidence boost for her going forward.
  • Kaylynne was quieter than her sister, but managed to add 11 points, including 3 three pointers, 4 assists, and 3 rebounds. Let’s hope that her broken finger has healed well and she’s able to get back to her double digit scoring and wizardly assist way.
  • As a team, Gonzaga only committed 7 turnovers and San Diego only converted this into 7 points. Two of these turnovers were committed by Bree, who made some questionable cross court or overly-aggressive passes after dribbling into the opposition’s pressure, so for this team to only have five other turnovers against a Torero team that forces nearly 17 per game across their season looks nice.
  • Gonzaga not only won the rebounding battle 38-31, they grabbed 14 offensive rebounds which correlated to an ORB% of 41.9% compared to just 24.8% for USD. Kasey Neubert has been a rebounding hog for the Toreros this season, but she was held to just 7 total rebounds, her lowest since before Christmas. While the Bulldogs could only convert this into 14 points, getting those chances will be important for both big and small teams in the future.
  • I was not very impressed with the Bulldog’s defense yesterday. I’ve highlighted before that San Diego gets the majority of their points from two pointers so for our defenders to allow their marks to beat them off the drive is unacceptable in my eyes. That’s not to say I expected it never happen, but there were too many times when I watched a Gonzaga player aggressively charge down a San Diego player on the three point line only for them to make a simple move by and essentially have a 5 on 4 opportunity. USD hasn’t shot above 40% all conference play and yesterday, they just about got there with their 39.7% performance, which was their highest since before playing Montana before Christmas. More striking, USD’s leading scorer, Veronic Sheffey, put up her second highest point total of the year with 20 on 7-12 shooting. As Kaylynne said during the post-game interviews, “Defense will win us games.”
  • How does Bree Salenbien have 5 blocks across her last two games in which she played 17 minutes? I mean, I know it’s happening because of her athleticism and size, but that’s an absurd amount and even including her previous 30 minutes when she did not have a block, these numbers correlate to more than six per 100 possessions. I personally look forward to Bree channeling her inner Dikembe.
  • Gonzaga has had a tendency this season to have some quarters in the teens and a quarter here and there with 25+ points, which feels good to watch, but also has left me a bit concerned at times that they’re not consistent enough across games. However, last night, we saw a game in which Gonzaga scored 21, 22, 22, and 20. It wasn’t their best shooting game as they went 30-61 from the field and 6-17 from deep, but there weren’t any real down quarters. Their worst shooting performance came in the fourth when the team went 7-17, but this number is deflated by the bench unit going just 1-5 from the field and the game firmly out of reach. I’m not sure if I like the boom/bust cycle we’ve seen at times this season more or less than the performance seen yesterday, but, frankly, it doesn’t really matter because if this team can consistently drop 80+ points, they’ll have a chance to win almost every game.

Gonzaga’s next game comes on the road this Thursday against Loyola Marymount at 10pm EST. Check back in later this week for a preview of that matchup. Until then, ZAG UP!