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#18 Gonzaga WBB Kick-Off Conference Play Tonight Against the Pilots

it’s time for revenge after last season’s WCC tournament final defeat

Gonzaga will travel to the Rose City to take on the Portland Pilots at 9pm EST in the Chiles Center and will be available to watch on ESPN+.

In other news, this is the first time since 2014 that the Women’s team has been ranked higher than the Men’s team. It might not happen, but I have to wonder if this year represents an opportunity for the Women to break into the top-10 since the highest AP ranking ever given was #11 in the 19-20 season. Covid really did rob us of so many things.

I won’t get into Portland’s current season performance since I already did that in this post. Instead, I’m going to highlight the game from last year’s WCC Tournament Final when the Pilots took down the Bulldogs to punch their ticket into the Big Dance since the teams possess many of the same players from that matchup. In all honesty, I’m kind of happy for the Pilots that they made the Tournament after missing out in 19-20 due to Covid, but wish it hadn’t come at our team’s expense.

Heading into the final tournament game, Gonzaga was ranked 16th in the AP poll and 41st in the NET rankings so while they might not have surpassed the program’s highest fifth seed, this team was certainly flirting with the idea. It’s possible the team was looking ahead to the Big Dance as they had defeated Portland twice already, first by 7 in Portland and then by 10 in Spokane, while holding the Pilots below their season average in points both games. Additionally, Portland was going to be without then-senior guard Haylee Andrews who tore her ACL in the second game against the Zags and was leading her team with 6.4 assists per game while chipping in 12.4 points per game. However, beating a team three times is tough for any team, let alone on a neutral court and Gonzaga would go on to fall 60-64, their second lowest scoring output of the season before the Ole Miss game.

So what went wrong? How can this team that has brought back nearly 85% of the minutes played and 90% of the points scored make the necessary improvements to prevent such a result to not just Portland, but to any WCC foe? To dive into that, I first want to start with some important numbers from the WCC Tournament matchup.

It’s crazy to look at this game, see the superior numbers in shooting, rebounding, and blocks from Gonzaga only to realize they lost. It gets even crazier when you realize Alex Fowler, Portland’s leading scorer that season, didn’t have a single point in the first half. To me, the big factors for this surprise defeat stem from turnovers, lack of team scoring, and the inability to make halftime adjustments to Portland’s defensive scheme.

With regards to this season, it’s obvious that having a fully healthy starting lineup makes a huge difference to the team’s ability to reach their potential. If Kayleigh was fully healthy for that Portland game, it’s possible Kaylynne would’ve had fresher legs to make a larger impact in the fourth quarter while also alleviating some of the offensive limitations of McKayla and Maxwell struggling to make shots in that game. Basketball is a tough game, not as tough as something like baseball from a success/numbers perspective since you can basically become a hall of famer despite failing in 70% of your plate attempts, and sometimes shots aren’t going to fall so it’s really important that this team has players who can step up when one struggles. It’s quite possible Kayleigh could have been this player if fully healthy.

When looking at turnovers, it’s still an issue of concern in my opinion. As some commenters have mentioned, with a team as established as the current Zags, it’s hard to imagine a higher ceiling than what’s already being established and I think the turnovers are the biggest indication. While no player besides Kaylynne has more than 2 per game (keep in mind she’s averaging 6.4 assists per game), the team only averages about 1 less per game than last season. In the loses to Montana and Louisville, the team turned the ball over 18 and 19 times, respectively, which was more than their assist numbers those games, 13 and 15 respectively. I’m not exactly sure how this team goes about improving their numbers, but it’s clear that when this team gets ahead of itself and tries to do too much, they will struggle.

When looking at the loss to Portland in the WCC Tournament Final, outside of Yvonne Ejim and Kaylynne Truong scoring 21 and 18 respectively, the next leading scorer was Eliza Hollingsworth with 11 and behind her was McKayla Williams with just 5. I’m sorry, but you just can’t win with that type of scoreline. Again, having a fully healthy team has gone a long way to the ten point jump in average scoring seen this year (71.1 to 81.1), but I still have my concerns as outside of the starting five, this team lacks any true scoring threat. Maybe Bree’s return or O’Connor/Ojukwu’s development can add some element of this to the squad, but with how Fortier runs her bench, I just don’t see this potential issue resolving itself. Now, if everyone stays healthy, this may be a concern that means nothing, but I’d still like to have some sort of insurance policy off the bench.

When looking at the lack of adjustments made at the half in the last Portland loss, I think it’s pretty clear that area has improved this year. Without getting into any statistics, it just feels like the Zags have almost always put up their best or second-best quarter-by-quarter performance in the third period. We may not see this team put their foe to rest as early as we may like, but I think the team has performed above-average in this regard. Hopefully that continues moving into conference play when the team will be playing some less than competitive teams when compared to the non-conference slate.

An area not highlighted from the Portland game, but still relevant to this season relates to second chance points. Despite winning that statistical battle against Portland, the degree of winning was not substantial and is an area that myself and others have highlighted in previous games as a source of weakness. Some of this seems to come from the rebounder going immediately up for the basket despite having awkward body positioning that creates a tough opportunity. Some of this may relate to certain personnel on the floor because it seems that some players like Little, Stokes, and to some extent, Hujibens, are either not given the greenlight to shoot or lack the confidence to do so with kickout passes or deflections from those rebounds. I think the key to solving this issue is for Coach Fortier to hire me as their designated brick layer and let me pull up from all sorts of terrible positions for a couple of practices and let the ladies battle it out with each other. But seriously, I don’t know how you solve this and just hope there can be some positive progression as the season moves forward.

One more area that isn’t really appropriate to criticize so much as a personal opinion relates to the lack of athletic dominance on this squad outside of Ejim. When watching games like Arizona and others where the opposition features strong or quick guards, the perimeter defense cannot hold up to the degree I would hope for in a Gonzaga team this capable of success. Maybe the inclusion of Bree or Naya can help, but I think with this team’s makeup, it could be an area of concern in big matchups come March.

All-in-all, I have some optimism that this Bulldogs team can go undefeated in conference play this year. I mean, they went 18-1 last season despite some injury problems so it’s not impossible. It may not be likely, but I think the potential is there for the taking and the points I highlighted above are some areas that could help in achieving that goal. I’m not sure exactly how my words in this article will come across, but I want to be clear: I enjoy this team. I enjoy staying up late on the east coast (worst place to watch sports mind you) to watch this team regardless of the result and I thoroughly enjoy being able to think and write about them with some degree of analysis, however bad it may be at times.

Be sure to hit the comments below as this article also serves as the primary open game thread for the matchup tonight. Zag up everyone!