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Gonzaga women look to head into WCC Tournament on high note against Portland in regular-season finale

UPDATED: Fri., Feb. 28, 2020

Gonzaga Bulldogs head coach Lisa Fortier reacts to a call against her team during the first half  Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020, at McCarthey Athletic Center. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga Bulldogs head coach Lisa Fortier reacts to a call against her team during the first half Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020, at McCarthey Athletic Center. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

There will be plenty at stake Saturday afternoon when the visiting Gonzaga women take on the Portland Pilots.

How much? Even more than you think.

For starters, the 11th-ranked Zags are chasing a 17th West Coast Conference win, which would tie the conference record set two years ago (by GU, of course). They also are pursuing a chance to host first- and second-round NCAA Tournament games.

There’s more. Next week, the WCC will hand out postseason awards, including coach of the year and player of the year.

Gonzaga head coach Lisa Fortier – who also is a contender for national honors – is in the hunt to win her fifth WCC award in just six seasons.

So is first-year Portland head coach Michael Meek, whose team is in fourth place after being picked last by his fellow coaches.

Also in the mix is Cindy Fisher of San Diego, whose Toreros are in second place after winning just two conference games last year.

A win by GU on Saturday might tip the scales to Fortier, who lost three starters to graduation last year and a fourth when Katie Campbell was injured four weeks ago – yet is running away with another WCC title.

The Zags are 27-2 overall and 16-1 in the WCC and four games up on second-place San Diego.

There’s even more intrigue in the race for league MVP. On statistics alone, Valerie Higgins of Pacific would win the award. She averages 16.5 points and 9.1 rebounds to rank second in both categories.

Meanwhile, no Zag ranks in the top 10. Jill Townsend is 13th in scoring and rebounding, and eighth in field-goal percentage, but she’s second in 3-point shooting at 43%.

In other words, Townsend has done it all, especially down the stretch after the season-ending injury to Campbell. Last week, she scored 31 points in road wins against Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine.

The bigger prizes are the WCC Tournament title and a top-four seed in the NCAAs, both of which eluded the Zags last year.

The game in Portland is the first step, and it won’t be easy.

The Pilots (18-10, 11-6) will finish no lower than fourth in the conference. The 18 wins are the most since Portland won 18 in 2009-10, and you have to go back to 1996-97 to find a season with more conference wins. That year, the Pilots went 14-0 in conference play when the WCC featured just eight teams.

Portland freshman forward Alex Fowler was named the WCC Player of the Week for the third time this season after averaging 19 points and 12 rebounds during wins at Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount. Fowler scored 27 points and collected a career-best 17 boards at LMU.

The teams last met in the WCC opener on Dec. 29, when the Pilots came into the Kennel and took a 20-point lead early in the second quarter.

Gonzaga rallied for a 62-57 win, but that game is so far in the rear-view mirror that it’s “everything has changed,” Fortier said.

One thing for sure: The Zags will take Portland seriously from the opening tip.

“It’s a huge game, and there is no way we’re looking past it the way our last game with Portland went,” Townsend said.

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