The win over UC Davis was barely in the books when the postgame conversation turned to the Gonzaga women’s West Coast Conference opener on Saturday in the Kennel.
More to the point, the game is against BYU, which is making its last scheduled appearance in Spokane before joining the Big 12 Conference next year.
One of the first questions posed to GU coach Lisa Fortier on Sunday was whether she would miss the games against BYU.
“I will refrain from commenting,” she said.
But Fortier did allow that it’s a rivalry, and how could she not?
Since taking over the program in 2014, Fortier is 135-24 overall against the WCC but only 12-8 against BYU.
Three of those losses cost the Zags some conference hardware, most recently a blowout loss in Provo, Utah, last year that effectively decided the regular-season title.
Two weeks later in Las Vegas, the Zags avenged that loss with a dominating performance in the WCC title game. And who can forget Jill Townsend’s buzzer-beater to win the tournament a year earlier?
Fortier would be the first to say that will mean nothing on Saturday.
The Zags are 9-2 and ranked 23rd in this week’s Associated Press poll but missing some key players.
BYU is 4-6 and going through a major rebuild from a 26-4 team that was arguably the best in program history.
No WCC team lost more in the offseason than the Cougars, who graduated Paisley Harding, Sara Hamson and Tegan Graham and saw longtime coach Jeff Judkins retire.
A few weeks later, two-time league MVP Shaylee Gonzales transferred to Texas.
The only returning starter is junior forward Lauren Gustin, whose 13.7 rebounding average ranks second in Division I. Gustin also averages a team-high 16 points, well above her 10.1 ppg average last season.
“It’s been different, for sure,” Gustin said during a WCC media event. “A lot of girls are gone, but it opened up a lot of opportunity.”
No one has embraced the opportunity more than sophomore guard Nani Falatea, who played sparsely last year. This season, she’s averaging 13.8 points and almost five boards.
Under new coach Amber Whiting – who a year ago was in charge of a high school team in Burley, Idaho – the Cougars lost their first three games, including a nine-point home defeat against Montana State.
BYU has won two of its past three but is coming off a 76-59 home loss to another big rival, Utah.
Fortier said she expects a tough game.
“I think they’re better than their record indicates,” she said. “It’s going to be a battle, because that’s what a rivalry is.”
Fortier also said BYU has traditionally “done a good job of taking role players and developing them.”
The Zags have been doing that as well, although not on an ideal timetable. Down to seven players at one point, GU was back up to nine for the 73-55 win over UC Davis.
There have been no injury updates on guard Kayleigh Truong (foot), forward Maud Huijbens (concussion) or wing Bree Salenbien (recovering from an ACL tear in March).
That means more big minutes for Kaylynne Truong, forward Yvonne Ejim and shooting guard Brynna Maxwell. In the past five games, each has averaged about 30 minutes on the court.
The time has been productive, with the trio averaging 51 points in those games.
The Zags’ three-game homestand continues Monday against San Diego and Wednesday in their final nonconference game, against Montana.
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