SPOKANE, WA — The Gonzaga Bulldogs had a guardian angel in their court Thursday night.
GU students, alumni, and fans alike painted the kennel pink with pride in support of breast cancer awareness. But the movement in the McCarthey Athletic Center, during Gonzaga’s 90-66 demonstrous defeat over Pacific, meant so much more than good charity.
The magenta “I play for” slogan draped across their chests. They filled in that blank with “Sister Laura.”
On the eve of the Zags’ thundering performance against the Tigers for a shot to stay a 12-0 in the WCC, one more spot on the bench opened up.
Sister Laura Michels passed away that night. Sister Laura was an integral part to the Bulldogs’ winning mentality on and off the hardwood as their team Chaplain.
“Today was super emotional for that reason,” explained Chandler Smith. “She was just the sweetest, nicest person, here at every game. She would say a little prayer and a little poem to get us laughing and smiling.”
But her seat at the end of the floor was never filled come Thursday’s challenge for 20 wins and 15 straight - the chair overflowed with flowers and handwritten notes from the players.
“Sister Laura is about the happiest person I’ve ever met in my life,” explained Gonzaga Head Coach Lisa Fortier. “It’s been hard for me personally because I know how proud she is of me, she tells me all the time. I know she feels the same way about our players.”
On that trying night in test of their inner strength, they played in her memory.
Her memorable words of wisdom and personalized poems did not go unnoticed. These pearls stuck with each and every player as they bled blue and red for something much more than a team, but for someone who brought them together this entire season.
“Her poems were hilarious,” Smith paused and laughed in reminiscence. “At the end we would all have to say the last rhyme, and we would just be screaming it, she would be like ‘Yessssss!’”
Their Guardian Angel stayed present throughout the night. The Zags kept control of the ballgame through the first half, but only by a 10 point margin. They came out of the locker room guns blazing, to tear up the floor with a 12-2 run. Gonzaga took their largest lead of the game at 58-38, but Pacific fought back with a 7-0 run.
“We played to our advantages and executed our game plan well,” said Fortier. “We never allowed them to develop a rhythm.”
“It’s fun when you get up by 15 or 20, but it’s all business until then,” said Jill Barta.
These efforts came against no blowout team. The Tigers played with claws sharpened. A dangerous Geanna Luaulu-Summers led the Tigers with 25 points. They were more accurate shooting from the arc all the way through the third quarter, until their tank ran low with minutes to go in the fourth. But Gonzaga went to work in the paint with 44 on the night, and looked like they could still run a marathon.
“We’ve found a way to score,” said Fortier. “It’s not always with a three point shot, which is what more people expect.”
It was that final period where the Zags ran the floor. And player of the game Barta hit her 17th double-double at GU.
“We’ve come a long ways,” Barta said. “A lot of hard games in the beginning, but we’ve really stepped it up. Working as a team is something we talk about. Taking the open shots, not being selfish.”
Sister Laura’s presence pushed four starters into double digit scoring. Barta finished the night with 25 points and 12 rebounds. Zykera Rice put up 13, while Laura Stockton shined with 10 points, five boards, and five assists.
Smith came close with an inspiring performance, scoring 12 with nine rebounds and three assists. But instead of closing out the double numbers, she let their guardian guide them to victory and took a seat to rest.
They had Sister Laura cheering them on from the skies.
“We’re really going to miss her and keep her in our thoughts and prayers,” said Smith. “We’re going to be totally thinking about her all the time.”
The Bulldogs now turn their focus to hosting Saint Mary’s on Saturday Feb. 10 at 2 p.m. Next up for the Tigers is a trip to Portland on Saturday Feb 10. at 2 p.m.