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Gonzaga women’s basketball welcomes new era while reflecting on accomplishments of memorable season

Gonzaga’s Chandler Smith, left, and Katie Campbell  celebrate the Bulldogs’ win over Little Rock in the first round of the NCAA Tournament  in Corvallis, Ore., on March 23. (Amanda Loman / AP)
Gonzaga’s Chandler Smith, left, and Katie Campbell celebrate the Bulldogs’ win over Little Rock in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Corvallis, Ore., on March 23. (Amanda Loman / AP)

As the Gonzaga women left the court at Gill Coliseum on the night of March 25, their faces showed fatigue and disappointment, but not a trace of “What if?”

Their season had just ended with a 76-70 second-round NCAA Tournament loss to Oregon State in Corvallis, Oregon.

It was a game that could have gone either way, but the Zags didn’t go there, though they had every right.

“Our team gave everything they had,” coach Lisa Fortier said.

Instead of moving on to the Sweet 16, the Zags are looking back on a season that was far more sweet than bitter. GU set program standards for highest RPI, ranking and best seed into the NCAAs.

The seniors – Laura Stockton, Zykera Rice and Chandler Smith – helped the Zags get better every year: 19-14 as freshmen, then 26-7, 27-6 and finally 29-5, with another conference title and the program’s first NCAA win in four years.

“The leadership group that we have, they’ve filled the gaps,” Fortier said. “They’re a tremendous group of young women who carried us on the court, off the court and in our personal lives.”

In the last two weeks the distinction almost disappeared through season-ending injuries to Stockton and Jill Townsend and the death of Fortier’s younger brother, Hayden Mispley.

“It was a really screwed-up week for us at a really bad time, but they didn’t care,” Fortier said.

“It’s easy to make excuses, to roll over,” Rice said. “I’m proud to have gone out this way.”

Now it’s time for others to usher in a new era.

On the court, Stockton, Rice and Smith leave an impressive legacy – and some big holes to fill, though Fortier never thinks of it that way.

Fortier sees them not as points and rebounds lost, but as opportunities for others to gain.

And there’s a lot to be gained – or made up, depending on your perspective. The three seniors accounted for 45 percent (33.3 ppg out of 73.4) of the Zags’ points and 36 percent of the rebounds.

They also brought intangibles that may be hard to make up: above all their tenacity, Rice in the paint, Stockton in the open court and Smith everywhere.

Fortunately, Fortier’s emphasis on balance will pay off, especially with 13 players on the roster next year.

So how will the Zags look six months from now?

Barring a huge surprise in the fall, the starting lineup seems almost a foregone conclusion: the 6-foot-3 Wirth twins, Jenn and LeeAnne, at forward, Townsend on the wing, Jessie Loera at the point and Katie Campbell at shooting guard.

The Zags haven’t employed a true post since Shelby Cheslek graduated in 2016, and that should continue, though 6-5 transfer Anamaria Virjoghe could surprise.

Also ready to contribute is 6-2 redshirt freshman Kylee Griffen from Lake Stevens, Washington, who was rated the 11th-best wing in the country by ESPN.

Expect versatile Melody Kempton to get more minutes in her true sophomore year; also expect incoming freshman forward Eliza Hollingsworth of Australia to redshirt as the program looks ahead to the eventual graduation of the Wirths.

The Zags also hope to find a role for 6-1 forward Gillian Barfield, who logged only 16 minutes this year as a sophomore.

It’s a different story in the backcourt. With Loera and Campbell entering their senior years, it’s a good bet the Truong twins, Kayleigh and Kaylynne, will play as true freshmen.

Conveniently for the Zags, Kayleigh is a natural point and Kaylynne a strong shooter. One already can imagine the 2020-21 squad with two sets of twins on the court at the same time.

In the meantime, both sisters will come off the bench for double-digit minutes, much as the Wirths did as true freshmen.

“Kayleigh has some great natural leadership characteristics that we really look for in point guards,” Fortier said in November, after the twins were signed.

“She has the ability to see the next pass before anyone else in the gym knows that it is coming,” Fortier said.

Of Kaylynne, Fortier said, “She finds her way to the ball and then knows exactly what to do with it when she gets it. She is also going to be a player who can really stretch the defense with her shooting ability.”

Also in the mix is Louise Forsyth, a strong outside shooter who saw her playing time spike this month after the injuries hit.

The Zags look solid, but the West Coast Conference race may be tougher next year. WCC runner-up BYU returns four starters from a team that beat the Zags in all three meetings.

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