March 7, 2023 

How a second-half comeback lifted Portland to a WCC championship

The Pilots came back from 11 down at the half to win the third-ever WCC championship

LAS VEGAS — The upset bug that had been running around Las Vegas caught one more victim as the second-seeded Pilots upset one-seed Gonzaga on their way to their third-ever WCC championship. Let’s look at how the Pilots made a tremendous second-half comeback to advance to their sixth NCAA tournament in program history.

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MOTG: Alex Fowler’s and-1 layup ended up being the game-winning bucket for Portland in the WCC Championship.

Quote of the game: Fowler didn’t know what to say after winning the WCC championship, “I’m so shocked that we won this like it’s an insane feeling. It brought back some memories from our friends my freshman year. I’m over the moon right now. I’m Yeah; I can’t even explain it.”

No. 2 Portland defeats No. 1 Gonzaga 64-60

Summary: The Bulldogs had an 11-point lead heading into the half, but the Pilots came out in the third, forced 10 turnovers in the quarter and took a two-point lead into the fourth. The Pilots extended their lead to eight in the fourth before a 9-0 Gonzaga run gave them a one-point lead with 43 seconds left. On the next possession, Fowler hit an and-one layup that ended up being the game-winning basket for the Pilots. Fowler was named the WCC tournaments’ Most Outstanding Player after scoring 15 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in the championship. Portland’s Maisie Burnham, Gonzaga’s Yvonne Ejim and Kaylynne Truong, and BYU’s Lauren Gustin were named as the rest of the WCC all-tournament team.

March 7, 2023; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Gonzaga Bulldogs guard McKayla Williams (24) dribbles the basketball against the Portland Pilots during the first half of the WCC Basketball Championships at Orleans Arena. Photo Credit: Kyle Terada

Gonzaga thoughts: The Zags played a strong first half and looked on their way to another WCC tournament championship. However, once that third quarter started, everything changed. The Zags turned the ball over 24 times in the game, with eight of them coming in the first half. They managed them well in the first half, but in the third quarter, they started coughing the ball up left and right. They had a stretch in the third (five) turnovers in six possessions and turned it over nine times in the third quarter alone. Those turnovers led to 19 of Portland’s 26 points in the third quarter.

Portland’s pressure really started to affect Gonzaga in that third and it completely took the Zags out of their rhythm. Their offense looked sputtery and the players looked indecisive on the floor on passes and shots in the majority of the second half. They showed their composure late in the fourth when they went on the 9-0 run to take the lead, which was the best they had looked all second half. However, they ended the game with two turnovers, a missed three and a split pair of free throws in their final three possessions of the game. Yvonne Ejim once again had a terrific game with 21 points and 14 rebounds, but she was their second-leading player in turnovers with five.

She was able to battle around the bigs from Portland and find ways to get to the basket. She also hit the jumper that capped the Zags’ 9-0 run in the fourth and gave them their only lead of the final quarter. Kaylynne Truong was also good with 18 points and hit a big three to start the Gonzaga rally, but she was the Zags leader in turnovers with seven. There were a couple times in the game where she looked flustered and couldn’t make the passes where she wanted them. The Zags were safely into the NCAA tournament coming into this game but will need to tighten some things up heading into the big dance.

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“There are some people who are upset and then they sit around mope and complain and point fingers in this weird awkward time,” said Lisa Fortier. “We’re so early with our tournament. We’ve got another week and then we find out where we’re going. Then we have another week. It seems like and so some people take it and they’re tired of the season and this and that. Then they usually don’t do very well in the NCAA tournament and we don’t want to be that team. We want to you know, have the right attitude and see what things we can fine tune and see if we can have some fun in March. There’s still a lot you know, this was of course, one of our goals, to win this game. But we have other goals too and hopefully that that will be things that we can refocus on once we get through the next day or two.”

March 7, 2023; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Portland Pilots guard McKelle Meek (1) shoots the basketball against the Gonzaga Bulldogs during the second half of the WCC Basketball Championships at Orleans Arena. Photo Credit: Kyle Terada

Portland thoughts: The Pilots played an incredibly gritty game and completely flipped the script of the game in the third quarter. Being down 11 at the half, the Pilots could have completely folded, but instead, they turned up the heat on Gonzaga. Early in the game, they were trapping the Gonzaga ball screens and flustering the Bulldogs. However, in the second quarter, Gonzaga got out of the traps and found ways to score. The Pilots made a change in the second half, doing less half-court trapping and more full-court pressing and trapping and it worked. They forced a ton of turnovers in the third quarter, got back in the game and, in the process, flustered a Gonzaga team that almost never gets rattled.

In the fourth, they did a great job of keeping Gonzaga at bay and going on a 10-2 run over a five-minute stretch to build their largest lead of eight. Then, they got a little sped up by Gonzaga and let them retake the lead after giving up a 9-0 run. Then Fowler made the play of the game with her and one layup. Fowler was excellent in the second half after a rough first half. She scored zero points in the first 20 minutes, missing all five of her shots. In the second half, she bounced back in a big way, scoring all 15 of her points, and shooting seven of nine from the field. She was much more aggressive attacking the rim and credits a pep talk from her teammate Haylee Andrews for her reinvigorated play in the second half.

Burnham led the Pilots in scoring with 19 points and was playing the whole game with a chip on her shoulder. She is from Spokane, where Gonzaga is located, and wanted to win this game so badly. She hit a three early in the first quarter and stared down the Gonzaga defender after doing so. She was consistent the whole game for the Pilots and stepped up in a big way when it was needed the most. The Pilots now get their first chance since 1997 to play in the NCAA tournament as they won the WCC in 2020, but the tournament was cancelled due to COVID.

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“I always kind of laugh about adjustments, but the few adjustments that we did make was we went more into our full-court trapping and less in our half-court trapping and we went into a little bit more protective defense in our ball screen defense,” said Michael Meek. “They’ve done a great job with that and in the second half, we just trapped more in the full court. I am a really big believer that the most aggressive teams are going to come out on top and I felt like our team was so much more aggressive in the second half…just really, really proud of this group.”

Written by Matthew Walter

Matthew Walter covers the Las Vegas Aces, the Pac-12 and the WCC for the Next. He is a former Director of Basketball Operations and Video Coordinator at three different Division I women's basketball programs.

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