SRX_GU VS_BYU_17

Gonzaga guard Jill Townsend (32) is greeted by Gonzaga head coach Lisa Fortier as she comes off the court during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021, in the McCarthey Athletic Center.

Not that they welcomed it, but a little adversity this week wasn’t the worst thing for the Gonzaga women.

After more than a month of cruising through West Coast Conference competition, the Zags got their biggest test of the season on Tuesday night against visiting BYU.

With the postseason about six weeks away, this amounted to a midterm for the Bulldogs.

The Zags passed with a solid B-plus, holding off the Cougars and taking a two-game lead in the WCC.

More important, they did so with grit, the most popular word in the presser following GU’s 63-56 win in an empty Kennel.

That, too, was an achievement: Absent the customary sellout crowd, the 19th-ranked Zags had to lift themselves up after BYU crept closer and finally tied the game with less than 2 minutes to play.

That BYU did so after a technical foul on senior guard Cierra Walker applied more pressure on a team that has seen little since November.

But this is a veteran team, with four senior starters in Jenn and LeeAnne Wirth, Jill Townsend and Walker.

“We have a lot of identities as basketball players – high post, low post, shooters,” GU head coach Lisa Fortier said.

“But a really big part of it is that we’re tough and gritty, and as we get into this part of the season, we talk more about being gritty.

“When it got tied, I thought we were really tough.”

And it was BYU, which came into Tuesday’s game one back in the WCC standings.

“I don’t know what it is about BYU, but it’s no lie that we’re rivals,” Townsend said. “It’s a circle on the schedule, and definitely a game to get up for.”

As BYU chipped away at the Zags’ 14-point halftime lead, the game got chippier.

New to the rivalry, Walker became part of the lore. Seeing one moving screen too many, Walker had seen enough and let everyone know it.

Fortier understood.

“When I was a player, I was super emotional,” Fortier said. “Something happens on the court, and that creates an emotion in an emotional person.

“She lost her composure for just a second, but the big thing was how she responded to that.”

It was Walker who pulled herself and the Zags back from the brink. A pair of 3-pointers from the left corner – “so clutch,” Townsend said – helped make the difference between a two-game lead in the standings and a tie.

More tests await, with little margin for error if the Zags hope to earn a decent seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Despite a 15-game winning streak and a 16-2 overall record, GU is treading water in the rankings, victims of a weak strength of schedule. That’s no reflection on the Zags, who lost several big nonconference tests to the virus.

COVID-19 protocols permitting, a rematch with the Cougars awaits on Feb. 18 in Provo, Utah. The WCC Tournament – where GU has failed to hoist the trophy two years running – is still on.

But for now, the Zags have earned a nine-day rest before hosting San Francisco and Santa Clara next week.

“I’m sure our players could use some extra rest,” Fortier said.

Jim Allen can be reached at (509) 459-5437 or by email at jima@spokesman.com