The Big Picture: Don't worry about these adversity-tested Zag women — They’ll be just fine

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — If anything about Gonzaga women's basketball was established over the past two years, it's that coach Lisa Fortier and her team don't see the spotlight as an inherent right.

When their season opener against Oklahoma was called off days in advance and the Zags lost a one-game warmup before facing the No. 1 team in the country in South Carolina, it didn't faze her or her athletes. They've learned to control what they can, and let everything else go.

"Things change," Fortier said in a Zoom meeting with reporters from the road on the team bus, a pair of plastic goggles and a face mask adorning her face. "And we're used to that now."

Their destination? A bubble in Sioux Falls, S.D., a national COVID hotspot — an oxymoron that only makes sense in 2020.

A few days later, and the Zags departed from the Sanford Pentagon 1-1, falling 79-72 in a scrappy, teetering affair against No. 1 South Carolina and rallying to dispatch a fringe Top-25 South Dakota team the following day. After both largely gave USC a run for their money in their respective matchups, Gonzaga moved up three spots in the AP poll Monday to No.18 and USD earned the same number of votes as the week before.

The strong effort by both against coach Dawn Staley's Gamecocks earned her praise after her team hoisted the trophy. Her team had beaten College of Charleston by 81 to open the season, but struggled against both the Coyotes and Bulldogs.

"[South Dakota and GU] were challenging opponents," Staley said, stating her belief that no other team in the country has played two teams of that caliber yet (that is, save for GU). "Some people won't play the teams like this because you're susceptible to losing, because they're that good. They're well coached. They play every possession."

But after leading said No. 1 team with less than two minutes left, praise and rankings are an empty consolation. Especially when the Zags had to deal with a 21-41 disadvantage at the charity stripe and South Carolina's bigs wreaking havoc off of screens in the backcourt.

"Yeah, that definitely wasn't in the game plan," said senior guard Jill Townsend when asked about the difference at the line. "That was kind of the opposite of the game plan."

The game plan be damned, the Zags still found every means imaginable to stay within striking distance. Timely deep shooting from Cierra Walker and Kayleigh Truong. The Wirth twins taking charges on one end and slicing through the lane on the other. Inconceivable rebounds and putbacks from Melody Kempton. Aggressive perimeter defense from Townsend. The size disadvantage manifested itself from beginning to end, but somehow that didn't matter. Only a flurry of late free throws finally sealed the result despite a 62-60 Zag lead with less than two minutes left.

"I'm proud of the way we battled and showed up," said Jenn Wirth. "But it's always frustrating to play a team close and fall short." She added that it did, in some ways, feel reminiscent of their matchup with Stanford just a little over a year before Sunday.

"Every player they have can make an impact on the game," she said. "In both games, we couldn't afford many lapses. It was 40 minutes of focus."

As others have noted, that Stanford game bears some striking resemblances to that performance against the Gamecocks. Both opponents overmatched the Zags on paper and stayed true to their game plans — but still couldn't muster a run to put GU away for good. Even with a breakout scoring performance from sophomore Lexie Hull and Kiana Williams' 20-point outburst in the second half for the Cardinal, the score tied 14 times and the lead changed 18 times before they finally pulled ahead in overtime to win by 6.

And just like on Sunday, the Zags advanced in the polls immediately after, going from unranked to No. 23, a move that catalyzed the march to their highest-ever Associated Press ranking of No. 11 in February when they rattled off 21 straight wins. The bitter taste of what could've been was still just as strong back then as it was on Sunday, though.

But unlike back then, the Zags had to get ready and face another high-level opponent the next day, one who had only lost by 10 to the Gamecocks two days prior. Going 0-2 would turn the trip from an optimistic challenge to something more disheartening.

The Coyotes raced to lead by as many as 18 early, thanks to 50 percent shooting from the field in the first quarter that left the Zags in the dust with only six points shooting 15 percent. But thanks to 20 points for Townsend and 12 from Kayleigh Truong, who combined to shoot 57 percent from beyond-the-arc.

"This kind of showed what our team was all about," said Townsend, whose free throws late helped seal the game once they had claimed a late lead and South Dakota started fouling to get the ball back.

"We came in here, we hadn't had a game, played South Carolina to the end. Then today, found ourselves down 18 at one point and just clawed our way back, possession by possession. So, we learned a lot about our team, our chemistry, the fight that each one of us has."

"I think we're pretty happy leaving South Dakota knowing that."

Going forward, the Zags will return to South Dakota this weekend to face South Dakota State, another team on the cusp of a top 25 nod, where they'll hope to reel off a string of wins against opponents they're expected to beat. They likely won't play the role of underdog with nothing to lose until the NCAA Tournament, but those who have been around the last two year have plenty of experience with that.

After they've had their breakout deferred, deflated, and outright cancelled over the last two years — untimely injuries, personal tragedies, the occasional head-scratching upset and the general circumstances of 2020 in general — they equate success with the difficulty of the road that takes them to it. Maybe that's why — as Staley reiterated — they fight so hard every possession.

When you've been through the highs and lows they have, no margin feels insurmountable.

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