SAN DIEGO, CA - A battle of two of the best mid-major teams in the nation ended up being a defensive squash.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs (18-4, 11-0 West Coast Conference), currently no. 10 in the Mid-Major Top 25 poll, held the San Diego Toreros (13-8, 6-4 West Coast) to 31 percent shooting, winning a decisive 63-44 blowout at the Jenny Craig Pavilion.
At the beginning of the game, it looked like Gonzaga had tunnel vision, as junior forward Jill Barta started a 6-0 run for the Bulldogs. But San Diego, led by freshman guard Myah Pace (6 pts), would not be intimidated. A 9-4 run kept the heat on the Gonzaga defense, but it wasn’t enough to get over the hump. Gonzaga escaped the first quarter with a razor thin 15-14 lead.
However, Gonzaga has proven that it doesn’t lose focus for very long, as it showed to start the second quarter. Junior guard Zykera Rice bullied the interior, scoring two straight baskets. San Diego wasn’t able to buy a shot during the second quarter, at one point going 0-for-9 during a six-minute scoring drought. Gonzaga went on a 14-4 run over the last six minutes of the quarter to go into halftime with a comfortable 35-24 lead.
Gonzaga head coach Lisa Fortier had noted that their goal was to force San Diego out of their comfort zone by making them shoot from the outside, a strategy that worked very well (San Diego was 3-of-12 from three-point range and couldn’t develop an inside game).
“Once we decided that we were going to make their players play to their weaknesses and not allow them to continue to go to their strengths, then we found great success,” Fortier said. “We defend as a team, we never want to go one-on-one; we always say it should be one of them versus five of us.”
Gonzaga came into the third quarter with all the confidence it needed, scoring the first four points. San Diego senior guard Aubrey Ward-El, however, sucked the wind out of their sails with a corner three to stop the run. Unfortunately for San Diego, that was about as much of a run as they would get.
For the second straight quarter, the Toreros couldn’t find the basket, going on another six-minute scoring drought. As if that wasn’t enough, they also committed five turnovers in the quarter, leading to a 12-0 Gonzaga run. Heading into the final frame, the Bulldogs had a vice grip on San Diego, holding a 54-31 lead.
If there was any fear in San Diego going into the final quarter, they definitely didn’t show it. Senior forward Alexandria Young made an emphatic jumper, and Ward-El imposed her will from beyond the key, going on a 7-2 run. But inconsistency caught up to them again, at one point going over three minutes without a field goal. While they outscored Gonzaga 13-9 in the final frame, it was nowhere near enough to put them within range of the Bulldogs.
Gonzaga’s junior duo of Jill Barta (13 pts, 5-6 FT) and Chandler Smith (12 pts, 7 reb) led the charge for the Bulldogs. The defense also put in work tonight, limiting the Toreros to eight free throws and seven assists overall. Smith credited the impressive effort to their patented press.
“I think we pushed the ball really well in transition, and we got in our 2-2-1 press, and I think it really helped us to turn them over, especially in the second half,” Smith said.
San Diego was led by senior Aubrey Ward-El, as she was the only player to score in double figures (14 pts, 3-5 3pt).
With the win, Gonzaga improved to a perfect 11-0 in conference play, maintaining their three-game lead on first place. But Fortier isn’t allowing the team to rest on their laurels.
“We still have areas of our game we’re trying to improve, and we just need to continue working on the little things and come into every game giving our best effort,” Fortier said.
San Diego, losers of three straight, are now 5-6 in conference play and in danger of falling to sixth place in the conference, a fact that Ward-El didn't need any reminding of.
"We gotta win. We have to remind ourselves that we've beaten really good teams," Ward-El said. "We've beaten Minnesota; we've beaten BYU, and we just have to go back to...almost the basics, get back on the 'win-train' and have that almost cocky confidence to get it done."
Both teams will see action on Saturday, as Gonzaga travels to BYU and San Diego will look to avenge an early-season loss against Saint Mary’s.