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March Madness: After stumbling in WCC tourney, can queen of mid-majors hold court in the Big Dance?

Last year’s WCC championship loss to Portland and the first-round NCAA tournament loss to Ole Miss: both were stepping stones. This year’s WCC championship loss to Portland: a setback, hopefully nothing more.

That’s where the Gonzaga Bulldogs are. They enter March Madness on the tail end of their best season in history, but one punctuated with a puzzling loss to a Portland team that they beat by 50 points in the regular season.

In the landscape of mid-majors, Gonzaga has been the queen this season. Before the Portland loss, the Zags were set to host in March Madness. Earning a No. 4 seed would be historic for a Gonzaga program that’s never been higher than a 5. It’s still possible, but not likely.

Maybe that’s a good thing.

Because the mark of a mid-major is being the underdog. The Zags play that role well, but they haven’t quite mastered being the favorite; now, with Selection Sunday on the horizon, Gonzaga has the chance to change the narrative.

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The Zags are ready to make a run.

“We still have such a high ceiling,” Kayleigh Truong said. “We haven’t reached it yet.”

This could be the season for them. They haven't been to the Sweet 16 since 2015 and have only made one Elite Eight. That came in 2011, thanks to Courtney Vandersloot, who has since enjoyed a successful WNBA career.

This squad has the pieces to make history.

They have talent — Yvonne Ejim is one of only two mid-major players named to the Naismith Midseason Watchlist.

They have experience — the starting lineup is made of three fifth-year seniors in Kayleigh, her twin sister Kaylynne and Brynna Maxwell, and two seniors, Ejim and Eliza Hollingsworth.

And they have the heartbreak of early-round losses lurking in the back of their minds.

Will Gonzaga rebound from its surprising upset to Portland and make a run in the NCAA tournament? (John Todd/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
Will Gonzaga rebound from its surprising upset to Portland and make a run in the NCAA tournament? (John Todd/NCAA Photos via Getty Images) (John Todd via Getty Images)

In 2021, they were upset by 12-seed Belmont in the first round. In 2022, the season ended in a second-round loss to Louisville. And last year, after a 28-5 season, Ole Miss cruised past the Zags, 71-48, in the opening round.

That one hurt. It hurt enough for the Truongs and Maxwell to come back for a fifth season, and for the Zags to use it as motivation for their best season in history — a 30-3 record that included a win over No. 3 Stanford and an undefeated regular season in the WCC.

“That was a wakeup call for us to reevaluate what we wanted for the season,” Ejim said. “What’s the goal here? How do we get there? How do we continuously come every single day and put in work in order to achieve that goal?”

The senior class all came to Gonzaga for different reasons. The Truongs were intrigued because coach Lisa Fortier wanted them both, and they saw themselves as a package deal. Ejim left her native Canada, but wanted a home away from home. And Maxwell, who transferred after two years at Utah, sought a program that would help her game develop to its full potential.

None of them came in with a certain number of wins in mind, or set-in-stone postseason goals. But the desire to win together, and to push Gonzaga further than it's ever been as a program, that came later.

It’s been a slow build for the current seniors. In 2021-22 they had a seven-loss season that ended in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Then last season, five losses and a first-round loss to Louisville. Game-by-game they got better, and day-by-day they got closer, with the latter influencing the former.

The team all lives in the same on-campus apartment building. That’s not a happy coincidence, or something orchestrated by the coaching staff. It’s by design. The Zags wanted to capitalize on the season, and part of that is soaking up every second of time they have together.

“Every time one of us does something we bring a buddy with,” Maxwell said. “And it’s never the same people. It’s intermixing, and our team is so close on the court because we are close off it.”

They saw "Barbie" together and have themed movie nights almost weekly. Once it was a Disney singalong, other times it's movies that correspond with upcoming holidays.

Ejim loves to thrift, and she makes sure to include all of her teammates — even the ones that don’t want to do the shopping themselves.

“Some people just ask me to buy them stuff,” she said with a laugh.

Yvonne Ejim leads Gonzaga, averaging 19.8 points and 8.5 rebounds per game this season. (James Snook-USA TODAY Sports)
Yvonne Ejim leads Gonzaga this season, averaging 19.8 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. (James Snook-USA TODAY Sports) (USA TODAY Sports / Reuters)

Meals are almost always a team affair. Even on days where they intend to eat separately, something brings the Zags together.

“Just the other day I was meal prepping and made way too much pasta,” Maxwell said. “So I sent a text and had people coming through to get some. It’s nice being able to just go and knock on someone’s door.”

As they got closer off the court, the team could feel a big win coming. In the second game of the season Gonzaga took No. 24 Washington State — before Charlisse Leger-Walker's injury — to overtime, falling 77-72.

A few weeks later, the Zags lost to No. 20 Louisville, 81-70, after a 20-6 fourth-quarter run propelled the Cardinals to victory.

Finally, on Dec. 3, the breakthrough came.

Gonzaga has played Stanford 16 times, and heading into that December contest, the Zags were just 2-13 against the Cardinal.

Ejim was dominant inside, going 11-for-15 and scoring 27 points, while Maxwell offered balance from the outside, making four 3-pointers to add 27 points.

Stanford star Cameron Brink sat out the second half with an illness, but the 96-78 victory was still dominant enough to send a message. It propelled Gonzaga into the AP Top 25 and into national conversations, but more importantly, it gave the Zags confidence.

“That really showed us as a team what we're capable of,” Ejim said. “And what can happen when we put the focus on our energy, when we stick together and we play together as a team.”

They followed the upset with a 23-game winning streak that included a 65-point victory over Pacific. In that stretch, the Zags never won by less than eight. Their closest game was a 78-70 overtime win over California four days after the Stanford win.

Heading into the WCC championship game, Gonzaga hadn’t lost to a conference opponent. It hadn’t even come close.

But despite topping Portland by 50 just two weeks earlier, Gonzaga fell in the WCC final, losing 67-66 to the Pilots. The Zags rushed off the floor, leaving Portland to celebrate its unlikely victory.

Nearly everything went wrong for Gonzaga in that game, but that doesn’t mean things can’t go right in the NCAA tournament.

“I like the way we bounce back from losses,” Kayleigh Truong said. “We don’t hang our heads. We get better every single game and every single practice. We keep proving that we really want this.”