Entering 2020-21, Gonzaga (still) has an answer for everything

SPOKANE, WA - MARCH 28: Head coach Lisa Fortier of the Gonzaga Bulldogs directs her players in the game against the Tennessee Lady Vols during the third round of the 2015 NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Tournament at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena on March 28, 2015 in Spokane, Washington. Tennessee defeated Gonzaga 73-69 in overtime. (Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images)
SPOKANE, WA - MARCH 28: Head coach Lisa Fortier of the Gonzaga Bulldogs directs her players in the game against the Tennessee Lady Vols during the third round of the 2015 NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Tournament at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena on March 28, 2015 in Spokane, Washington. Tennessee defeated Gonzaga 73-69 in overtime. (Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images) /

Resilient (and deep) Zags roll on

For the 2019-20 Gonzaga Bulldogs, the cancelation of the NCAA Tournament was just the second gut punch of the week. Three days before, they’d both entered and exited the WCC Tournament in the semifinal with an upset loss to Portland (though, admittedly, one that wasn’t altogether unexpected against that team).

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It was the first time since 2016 that the Zags hadn’t reached the tournament final, which also marked the second year of their most recent two-year title-less streak until 2019 and 2020.

On one hand, increased parity in the WCC is an excellent sign for a conference that’s been defined by Gonzaga’s success for the last decade-plus. On the other, Gonzaga knows it can do better — and it maintains the tools to do just that going into 2020-21.

Well-oiled machine

The 2019-20 season’s biggest roadblock — the loss of Katie Campbell to a knee injury in early February — harkened back to last season’s woes that included a rash of injuries and a loss in the tournament title game. But while losing Campbell was difficult, it gave the team a taste of what it would be like without one of their two seniors (Jessie Loera being the other).

Since Lisa Fortier took over the program in 2014, Gonzaga has thrived on its depth. The starting five is a strong group, to be sure — they did most of the scoring last season — but everyone else has the chance for big minutes, too.

Nine of 11 players played 12.9 or more minutes a game, while nine of 10 got into 28 or more games. This doesn’t count Campbell, who started all 23 she appeared in; it also bears mentioning that this minimum would have been 29 had Kayleigh Truong (28/31 games) not missed three January games due to injury.

Against Stanford, the November overtime loss that still managed to propel the Zags into the AP Poll (where they finished at No. 13), ten players saw time, and eight got double-digit minutes.

Getting valuable time off the bench means players like Jill Townsend can seamlessly transition to a starting role in a big way. The junior, who had never started a game until the 2019-20 season, ended as the team’s leading scorer and was named WCC Player of the Year.

During a two-game period where both Truong (bench) and LeeAnne Wirth (starter) were out with injuries, sophomore Melody Kempton earned her first career starts and averaged 8 points and 4.5 rebounds. When Campbell went down, Truong started the last eight games in her place.

That there is a ready-made replacement for any fallen player means Gonzaga spends less time experimenting with lineups and more time focusing on how to maintain the excellence they’ve become known for producing.

Departures, lineup shuffling and an impactful addition

The loss of two experienced guards to graduation — Campbell, as well as point guard Loera — is appropriately massive. Loera led the team in steals and assists, while Campbell was their 3-point ace (her 41.1% per game from distance was 30th in the country).

Still, it’s more of a credit to Fortier’s recruiting than a discredit to the loss of these players that Gonzaga appears to have a clear plan for that. With three starters returning — Townsend at guard, plus LeeAnne and Jenn Wirth at forward — the holes are at point guard and shooting guard.

Both Truong twins — Kayleigh and Kaylynne — are point guards, but Kayleigh more often came in off the bench for Loera during the season (before she became Campbell’s full-time replacement). Slotting her in at point guard seems like a natural fit, and it also gives her three years to develop at that position, with her twin sister as her counterpart off the bench.

While Loera racked up a team-leading 150 assists, Kayleigh Truong came in second with 76, a number that’s sure to grow with increased playing time.

At shooting guard exists another great fit, albeit an untested one: Cierra Walker, the 2019 transfer from Vanderbilt who will be eligible to suit up in the fall. Fortier expressed enthusiasm in Walker’s midrange and 3-point shooting — her career highlights include tying Vanderbilt’s single-game 3-point record during an 8-of-12 outing — and on paper, she’s a solid Campbell analog.

Both Kaylynne Truong and Louise Forsyth, who appeared in all 31 games last season, are available off the bench in this area. This Truong led the team in 3-point shooting by percentage, though only took 41 shots from deep; Forsyth, meanwhile, was right in there consistency-wise with the likes of Loera or Kayleigh Truong.

Whether Kempton will get more starts at forward with both Wirths still active remains to be seen, but another interesting question is what Fortier will do with rising redshirt junior Anamaria Virjoghe. At 6’5, she’s the team’s tallest player, but she simply didn’t play much in 2019-20, her first season with the team (she transferred from the NAIA’s Northwest Christian in 2018 and sat out the next season). Certainly, developing her in 2020-21 will give Gonzaga a big boost, height-wise, when the Wirths (both 6’3) graduate.

The Zags also look to welcome back forward Eliza Hollingsworth in the fall, who sat out her freshman season due to injury. They’ll also wait to see about Kylee Griffen, a 6’2 wing who has yet to suit up — she redshirted her first year and was out injured last season.

Freshmen outlook (and a new transfer)

Gonzaga announced four new additions over the past six months: three freshmen in McKayla Williams (four-star recruit and No. 87 overall per ESPN HoopGurlz), Lily Scanlon and Yvonne Ejim, and Abby O’Connor, a senior transfer from Loyola Chicago.

“They are all such versatile, and competitive players,” Fortier said of the freshmen. “We have muscle and finesse, speed and skill…really, we have a little of everything in this class.”

In Williams, the Zags get a very Townsend-like player — someone who can play anywhere, but excels at the wing. At 6’1, she’s also established herself as a powerful rebounder. Unlike Townsend, though, she’s more of a facilitator at the arc, rather than shooting from there herself.

Scanlon, a guard, and Ejim, a forward, are also both well-rounded players and good ball handlers for their positions. Both have experience internationally — Scanlon was on the Australia team that finished with a silver medal at the U19 World Cup last summer, while Ejim was on the Canadian team for the 2018 U17 World Cup.

That U17 World Cup saw Australia and Canada face off, with Scanlon (and Gonzaga’s Hollingsworth) taking on Ejim. Scanlon’s 22 points led Australia to the win, while Ejim had a team-high 7 rebounds for Canada.

O’Connor, meanwhile, is coming off a season where she earned All-Missouri Valley Conference honorable mention honors. The guard/forward has missed just one start in her career, one where she’s averaged 12.5 points, 7 rebounds and 1.5 assists.

“Abby is a great fit for our program, and she will play an important role for us,” Fortier said. “She is very versatile and can stretch the defense at the forward and dominate inside as a guard. She is a very good shooter who finishes well from the paint, midrange and 3-point line.”

With a definitive answer on immediate transfer eligibility for 2020-21 still up in the air, O’Connor may not suit up until 2021. Still, her influx of experience won’t just be a well-timed addition to an elite team — it’s exactly how Gonzaga operates.

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